When, on the last day of the series, professional irritant behind the stumps Niroshan Dickwella asked Dom Sibley if he’d be opening the batting against India, he aimed to spark some righteous anger in the Sibley engine. But he’d not counted on Sibley’s special spark-repelling, steel-plated, engine room.
“I don’t know,” big Dom replied without a hint of irritation, the hot, hot Galle sun beating down on his back as he marked out his crease. “I haven’t had a great series.”
It revealed so much about him in just nine words. The stoicism and pragmatism of the serial grafter. It was honest too; Lasith Embuldeniya’s left-arm spin had been a mystery to him during the series, dismissing him for four, two and a duck in his three previous innings.
Young Sibley was definitely not the kid who anyone needed to feel sorry for. He won a sports scholarship to Whitgift school and in 2013 was the youngest player to make a double-century in the County Championship with 242 against Yorkshire at the Oval in only his third first-class match, when he was just a teenager. But life wasn’t so simple after that, and he eventually moved from Surrey to Warwickshire where weight of runs – he was the first, and only, batsman to 1,000 first-division Championship runs in 2019 – eventually saw him picked by England for their winter tour of New Zealand.
You felt that it was almost a reluctant decision by the selectors, despite his heavy scoring for Warwickshire. He didn’t look like a prize athlete; solid like a postbox, efficient like a milk float, his nickname from his England teammates was “The Fridge”. And this nickname has remained, despite losing 12kg during lockdown while the rest of the country was digging deep into the biscuit barrel.
He made his debut at Mount Maunganui in New Zealand in November 2019, creaking his way to laborious but valuable 20s and 30s, until in his fourth Test, against South Africa at Cape Town, he made 133, immaculately disciplined outside the off stump while simultaneously picking runs off his legs. Another hundred followed against West Indies at Old Trafford in the lockdown Tests, where he left the ball 109 times and defended 141 more on the day the Hundred was supposed to start. There is a message there somewhere.
And so back to Galle and England’s second-innings run-chase of 164. Sibley marched out with his friend Zak Crawley, offering no surprise package, just vintage graft. He was seemingly unflustered, despite being very lucky to survive three lbw appeals in near-identical style after sway-shuffles back towards his stumps, thanks to the umpire’s (generous) call. He was the mothership that the wide-boys played around, standing lonely at the non-strikers end as Crawley, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root and Dan Lawrence made the slow walk back to the pavilion. In a strange kind of way, he may even have benefited from his lack of time at the crease. In just the sixth over, the Sri Lankans had put out three men in the deep for him – not the obvious field placings for anyone who has studied the Sibley way in depth.
His onside nudge reached optimum effectiveness. He went to his 50 with a high-elbowed squirt on the legside off Dilruwan Perera and a modest lift of the bat; he even got the winning runs with a familiar swat the same way. He finished with an invaluable 56 not out in what were completely alien conditions, in an unbroken partnership of 75 with Jos Buttler. In one of those run-chases that no one who has supported England for any length of time could confidently call, the presence of Sibley, however precarious, was reassuring. And as confidence grew, he even threw in a masterly sweep low down on one knee.
In his post-match interview, he was as candid as ever. How did he feel? “Relief, to be honest. I had a bit of a stinker in the series so far. After working so hard on spin before we came out here, I was beginning to doubt myself a little bit. Obviously, I had a bit of luck today with the reviews and it was nice to spend some time at the crease and give myself a chance.”
“I have been working on options, really. In the summer, I felt I was getting a bit stuck in the crease. It was just a case of believing even though I’d had three failures to the same bowler. He certainly had the wood over me, so I was trying to spend 20 balls, 30 balls to try to get into the innings a little bit and build the partnership, and take the focus off myself.”
Watching Root play so well, he went on, “makes you feel inadequate”. No Dom! Root is Root, Sibley is Sibley – a baby at this level, and a completely different batsman with completely different talents – admirable to the watching fan in so many different ways to Root.
At the end of the game, the BBC’s Daniel Norcross suggested that new US president Joe Biden might consider a bust of Sibley in the Oval Office. As Root concluded after the match, the run-chase was about dealing with pressure, and that Sibley showed “maturity, calmness and poise”. I can think of worse suggestions.