Ben Jones analyses a day when England’s new opener guided them to a dominant position in Cape Town.
Dom Sibley, 85 (222).
Two two two.
It’s not without significance that, on a day when old-fashioned and classical Test batting was back en vogue, the Englishman at the heart of that revival ended on the most on-the-nose reference to a voice from the past as possible. Try saying that, 222, without lapsing into the most affectionate impression a cricket fan can offer, without hearing Those Words said in That Voice.
A coincidence, of course, and nothing more.
And yet, the key element of Benaud’s commentary, the most quoted phrase from his advice to other commentators, was simple. Don’t speak, unless you’ve got something to say. Don’t add anything to the action, if nothing needs to be added. He may have been in the middle, rather than in the commentary booths of either Supersport or TalkSport Radio, but Dominic Sibley seemed to be heeding that advice.
Perhaps Sibley has aspirations beyond playing, ambitions to end up behind the microphone, or perhaps he understood the broader, more nuanced message behind Benaud’s comments. Assess your ability, look over the general landscape. Look where you can offer something, and interject then, but otherwise be content to sit. To rest. To be quiet, to be peaceful, to let others shine. Either way, he seemed to take it on board.
When England walked out to bat today, off the back of James Anderson’s five-fer and with the tailwind of optimism, WinViz was cautiously joining in. England had a 60% chance of leaving Cape Town with a win, far higher than they may have expected as wickets were tumbling in the latter stages of their first innings. They had a lead, but not a decisive one. It was a strong position, but not a dominant one. They needed someone to convert the former into the latter, and they found one – emphatically.
Sibley, after a few Tests suggesting he was capable of such an approach, offered it. His innings was restrained, a parade of the negative, of leaves, of absence. Just 14.8% of his strokes were attacking. Since 2006 when such data started to be recorded, that is exceptional, in the very literal sense of the word. Only five innings of more than 200 balls by English openers have seen fewer attacking shots. Four have been by Alastair Cook, and one by Nick Compton, a man dismissed by Trevor Bayliss with one sweep of a press conference remark, when he asserted that he wanted two attacking batsmen in the top three. He may well have, and he may well be right. But excluding one sort of player is rarely productive, and rarely for the broader good.
Sibley has attracted an odd kind of attention over the last few years, an ideological sort of discussion forming itself around his batting. Don’t pick these white ball dashers, these World Cup winners. Pick Sibley. Back red ball talent, support the Championship, Buy British.
According to our Wicket Probability model, the average batsman would have scored 108 runs off the deliveries Sibley faced today. He didn’t even get close to that, and that shows the limitations of his scoring and of his ability to assert himself on an attack and bend them to his will. But our model also shows that, on average, a batsman facing the deliveries Sibley faced today would have been dismissed 3.5 times. And he hasn’t been dismissed once.
Such a performance is of huge value. To have the technical and mental skills to resist that sort of onslaught, an attack which would have removed the average batsman thrice over, is impressive. Sibley has carried England from a strong position, into one they would do well to lose from.
Yet of course, all this is double-edged. Blocking, negative cricket, defensive play – it’s very easily co-opted by a certain kind of cricket fan who “follows” the game, who enjoys it as a peak-time-train to the past and nothing more. Slow going is a tactic, and nothing more, not a dinosaur’s approach but not a cheat code to pure success in this format. It is one way of overcoming the obstacles which England are faced with, but it is not the only one.
“That’s what we needed.”
“That’s how it’s supposed to be.”
“None of this hit and giggle nonsense”
“Reminds me of how it used to be.”
“When men were men.”
You didn’t have to look far for this sort of sentiment today. It’s a peculiar quirk of the English character that, if they are honest, they would rather things were bad so that they could really get their teeth into complaining. One person railing against the present, by showing the Qualities Of The Past, is a dream come true for plenty.
Which is why it’s important that England fans don’t lose themselves in this. Since the start of 2019, England’s Test batsman have averaged 26.48 runs-per-dismissal. According to our Wicket Probability model, the deliveries that England have faced should, on average, have cost 26.9 runs-per-dismissal. They are not the shower-of-snowflakes plenty are trying to paint them as, but rather a group of talented yet flawed players, who have to play their cricket in an era when bowlers don’t smoke, drink on their rest days, and have the benefit of being able to watch every delivery any player has ever faced before even sending down a ball. They haven’t done as well as they perhaps could have done, perhaps as well as the budgets of the ECB suggest they should. But they haven’t done badly.
As simple as it is to lapse into the easy binaries of social media, of thug.gif or clown.gif, it’s wrong to suggest English Test cricket has been some sort of joke for an era. They haven’t lost a main home series since 2012, they haven’t lost a home Ashes since the Democrats were still contesting Al Gore’s right to the Presidency. They are poor away from home, but that is the tune of this era.
And yet, today did feel like a reawakening of a certain value system, a callback to the values of Flower and Strauss which did, however fleetingly, take England to the summit of Test cricket. The challenge for England is that, really, they don’t have many Sibleys. Of all the English batsmen over the last two Championship seasons, only nine (min 20 matches) have recorded a lower attacking shot percentage; two, Haseeb Hameed and Gary Ballance, have played Test cricket, and none of the others have averaged over 36. Cry back to this mould of cricket all you like, these cricketers are few and far between.
Question the means of production, but the product remains the same. England don’t have Sibleys round every corner, at the top of every order across the land. They are, essentially, an item out of fashion, an emblem of a style no longer considered worthy of sitting at the front of the shop. Perhaps for better, perhaps for worse.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.