CricketSports

The Spin | Dom Sibley’s inertia is costing England and could lose him his place

When it wasn’t making you tear your hair out, the first Test was a lot of fun. But let’s face it, England got out of jail, thanks to Joe Root’s hundred and the last-day washout. And now, in the brief gap between the first and second Tests, there are a few knots for the management to untangle. The first one is this: how do you solve a problem like Dom Sibley?

On paper, he did a job at Trent Bridge. In making 18 and 28, he stuck around long enough to shield the middle order. But he was painful to watch, like a fearful football team, forever playing sideways. He used up an awful lot of deliveries: 70 in the first innings, 133 in the second. Of those 203 balls, he hit just four to the boundary. And he dropped a clanger when he spilt a nick from KL Rahul, his opposite number, who had 52 at the time and went on to 84.

If Sibley had held that catch and made his runs at a decent speed, England might well have had time to win the match. Or, to be fair, to lose it. While Rory Burns tries to bring back the mullet, Sibley is on a mission to make the draw fashionable again.

And yet he’s an endearing figure, admirable in his way. There’s a Sibley in every school or village team, plodding along with nothing to declare but his (or her) determination. Many England fans are fond of him, even proud: he turns them into the parent at sports day who cheers loudest for the child struggling not to come last. He’s the ugly duckling who will never turn into a swan, but his method has somehow brought him two Test hundreds, plus a third in the England Lions’ only recent Test in Australia.

But now, after a long run in the first XI, Sibley’s signature inertia is getting worse. Of the 21 international innings in which he has reached 15, the two at Trent Bridge were the slowest. On a good day he brings zen, which can be needed in the drawn-out drama of a Test; on a bad day he’s a zombie, sucking the life out of the contest, as he did when England dismally refused to chase a modest target against New Zealand.

They have a ready-made replacement in their squad, now that Haseeb Hameed is finally back in form. He’s a slowcoach too, but has a classical style that at least contains the possibility of scoring faster. And he made a hundred only last month against Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj and Shardul Thakur.

Chris Silverwood’s selection for Trent Bridge was a muddle. There was no spin, no pace and barely any balance. A four-man attack doesn’t suit Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson (too old to be mere stock bowlers, yet their strike rate has begun to fade), or Sam Curran (best used as a rabbit from a hat, not a workhorse). They got away with it because the rain kept giving the old-stagers a break and because Ollie Robinson, in only his second Test, performed like a senior pro.

England are not just missing Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes: they’re missing Ed Smith. By sweeping away Smith and his role as national selector, Ashley Giles has deprived the Test side of vision, audacity and strategic thinking – all of which are there in the white-ball teams because Eoin Morgan provides them.

Without Smith or Andrew Strauss, the Test brains trust doesn’t have much of a brain. There are bright sparks such as Mo Bobat, the performance director, and Nathan Leamon, the team analyst, but the people making the big decisions – Silverwood, Root and Giles himself – all have similar backgrounds, involving a lot more dressing rooms than lecture halls.

Jos Buttler (right) was an Ed Smith selection and is still in the England Test team.
Jos Buttler (right) was an Ed Smith selection and is still in the England Test team. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images/Reuters

Nothing wrong with the university of life, it’s just that a top-class education does have its uses. Smith, the most erudite England cricketer since Mike Brearley, could be too clever for some tastes, but when Strauss put him in charge of selection in 2018 England’s Test results suddenly improved. They did roughly twice as well, going from 0.80 Test wins per defeat in the previous three years to 1.75 in Smith’s time, and rising from seventh in the world, by that measure, to third.

Smith was bold, bringing back Jos Buttler and Adil Rashid, daring occasionally to sideline Broad. He believed in youth, promoting Sam Curran and Zak Crawley. He figured out that the best use of England’s resources was to have five or even six bowlers, because the all-rounders would make as many runs as the top order.

On an English greentop, facing the Dukes ball, even a gifted batsman will average in the low 30s. Root’s hundred at Trent Bridge was his first in England for three years, and until he reached 20 his flowing drives were interspersed with inside edges.

The question Silverwood should ask himself now, even if it sticks in his gullet, is: what would Ed do? The answer might well be to pick a lineup for Lord’s looking like this: Burns, Hameed, Crawley, Root, Bairstow, Buttler, Moeen Ali, Robinson, Wood or Saqib Mahmood, Leach or Matt Parkinson, and Anderson. A team with speed, spin, swing, classical stroke-makers, counterattackers – and no Sibley.

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