Has anyone ever been made so rapturously happy by Dom Sibley’s batting? Let loose at a Test match after 15 months of on-and-off lockdown, the crowd in the Hollies Stand were driven delirious by England’s odd-couple openers, Sibley and Rory Burns, as they batted through Thursday’s morning session for 72. That ranked surprisingly high in the list of England’s recent opening stands: fifth-best in a home Test since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, and their biggest in a first innings at home since the last time New Zealand were here in 2015, when Alastair Cook and Adam Lyth put on 177 together at Headingley.
This speaks to England’s struggle to settle on a reliable opening pair. And also to the fact that they may have finally found one. Unfortunately for them, it seems to have happened when their middle order has gone missing. Graham Gooch memorably described batting against Richard Hadlee’s New Zealand as like facing the World XI at one end and Ilford Second XI at the other. Watching England go about their work on Thursday afternoon, it felt as if New Zealand were bowling to Ilford Second XI at one end and Ilford Third XI at the other. By then, those in the Hollies Stand were chanting about football coming home. They were oddly quiet about the prospects of cricket doing similarly this winter.
Sibley, though, seems well on his way to becoming a cult hero. Few men have gone in to open for England with a smaller armoury to work with: he has a frown, a block, a cuff and a prod. Cook, who built a record-breaking career on the back of three shots, feels blessed with unfathomable riches of talent in comparison. They used to say that the hardest part of bowling to Brian Lara was the feeling that he could choose from any one of three different shots to even the best balls you delivered. Sibley is the inverse – you feel he might bat all day without playing anything much other than a nudge to the leg side.
His batting is so awkward it makes Burns’s look handsome. At one point he tried to play a cover drive but his claw-handed grip on the bat meant it simply refused to do the thing he was telling it to and he somehow ended up squirting the ball down to long-on. It didn’t make it over the boundary but instead gave up on the way, possibly because it died of boredom. Later on, mirabile dictu, he tried again and hit two cover drives to the boundary in a single over from Neil Wagner, who invited it by floating both deliveries up as full and wide as he could, perhaps just because he wanted to see if Sibley would.
In case it isn’t clear, I’m a fan. I mean, how could you not be when the man came out to bat in the same filthy sweater he was wearing when he made 60 not out in the second innings at Lord’s last week? It still had a great muddy streak across the front from where he had belly-flopped over the crease to beat a throw from the deep. It was a shame he got out here, for all sorts of reasons, not least because you wondered just how long he would have carried on before he finally washed his lucky top. No doubt if he had carried his bat he would have rocked up in it at Nottingham for the first Test against India in August.
He doesn’t lack for stubbornness, after all, or determination, or patience, but has enough of all three to compensate for everything he apparently lacks.
England’s management obviously like him, too, and they have been rewarded for sticking with him through a run of six consecutive single-figure scores before the last day at Lord’s. It’s hard to tell just how much weight the England team have given to what went on in Sri Lanka and India this winter, but no doubt some previous regimes would have dropped him already. It’s testament to Sibley’s composure that as soon as he was back in England he went back to doing the thing he has always been good at, a little older and wiser, perhaps, for having been through the mill on tour.
Some of his teammates, on the other hand, look as if they are still feeling pretty flummoxed by those experiences. Zak Crawley’s game is in bits – he has made nine single-figure scores in 11 innings since he scored that double-century against Pakistan. Ollie Pope has batted in 14 innings without passing 50 in the same time, even though he has made it into double figures in the last six of them.
The break that follows this match may just have spared the selectors a difficult decision, though you guess both men will wish they had a little more first‑class cricket to play in between now and 4 August. Sibley’s got far fewer shots than either, but more self-possession than both.