Warwickshire 273 for 7 (Sibley 118*, Bailey 3-50) vs Lancashire
The evidence of that labour – apparently Sibley was often in the Edgbaston nets at eight in the morning – was plain during this marvellously well-contested day at Emirates Old Trafford. When it ended, in glorious May sunlight, the opener had 118 runs against his name. He had batted through the three sessions and had faced 278 balls, 15 of which he had hit for four. So much, so statistical. But the true merit of his innings was plain not in its figures – he has made centuries before, some of them big ones, two of them in Test matches – but in the manner the runs were made.
It is, of course, absurd to say Sibley should now be recalled to the England side. Yet innings like this revealed an improved technique and underlying that, the sort of humble, illusionless approach any sportsman needs if he is to recover from the setbacks that will certainly be part of his career. The late wickets taken by Lancashire with the new ball may have given their side the slightest of edges but there is little doubt whose contribution will attract the most notice when this game is reported on the media’s many platforms. Sibley’s “journey”, to borrow the current buzz-word, might be one from which other young cricketers can learn and perhaps it began, ironically, with opting not to play for an England team.
When selected for the England Lions squad last autumn it would have been easy for Sibley to go to Australia in the hope of picking up a big hundred and somehow getting straight back in the Test team. Instead, he clearly recognised that such an approach would do little for his technical shortcomings and he opted to spend his winter mornings with Tony Frost and the other Warwickshire coaches in the Edgbaston nets, working on his balance and rebuilding a game that had come close to disintegration in two Tests against India’s pace attack.
As a result, Sibley’s batting is no longer an unlucky bag of technical problems. He does not fall across the line of the ball; his hands are less likely to grope out towards the off side; his attacking strokes to leg in front of square have become controlled clips rather than wild shovels. He is also playing much straighter, with his head over the ball; a fine straight drive off George Balderson was a perfect example off this modification. In short he no longer topples over like a hat-stand in a stiff breeze. His batting is characterised by commitment without compulsion.
There were sins amid all this righteousness; Sibley’s 380-minute innings was chanceless but by no means faultless. Yet one only needed to recall his fraught cricket last year to realise how much has now changed. And one had to see the struggles some of his partners endured to understand the merit of his innings.
The first wicket to fall was that of Alex Davies, whose departure from Lancashire last July came as a surprise to most people at Emirates Old Trafford, maybe even, in a sense, to Davies himself. However, the opener experienced a more predictable leave-taking in the third over of the day’s play when he shouldered arms to a ball from Tom Bailey and lost his off stump. Davies had already been flummoxed twice by his former colleague so one can hardly say his dismissal for an eight-ball eight-minute nought was much of a shock.
Sibley’s difficulties, though, have never been of the temperamental variety and throughout the rest of the day he bore the departures of his partners with a phlegmatic shrug. Nearly an hour after Davies’ dismissal, Rob Yates was bowled for 15 by a fine outswinger from Luke Wood that curved back from a middle-stump line and knocked out the off stick. The stump had barely stopped moving before Sibley had turned to the dressing room and indicated he needed new gloves. It would be wrong to interpret this as indifference to reverses; rather it revealed a determination to prepare for a new stage in his side’s innings. The over after Yates was dismissed Sibley cover- and straight-drove Balderson for fours. It was hard to recall him playing the second of those strokes with comparable assurance a year ago.
Lancashire, though, are a flinty bunch of cricketers and they allowed Warwickshire few liberties in the afternoon session. Sam Hain batted very competently for his 38 runs but then turned a legspinner from Matt Parkinson into a full toss and drove it to straight to short extra-cover where Rob Jones, the substitute fielder, took the catch above his head. Will Rhodes, who seems out of sorts at present, went back to a legspinner from Parkinson when he should have gone forward and was bowled for 16.
Warwickshire came into tea on 169 for 4 and by then it was clear that the nature of the day, although not its balance, might be defined by whether or not Sibley, who was on 76, completed one of the most important centuries of his career. That matter was resolved relatively swiftly. A glanced four off Bailey and a cut off Wood took him nearer the nineties and two fours off Parkinson eased nerves. A single off Balderson brought up the landmark but Sibley acknowledged the matter in the most low-key fashion. He probably knows there is so much more to do in this match, this season and his career. Others can kiss badges if they wish.
Lancashire, though, struck the day’s final important blows. Bailey, who seems never to bowl badly, had both Chris Benjamin and Michael Burgess leg before wicket, the former for a fine 47, and Hasan Ali snared Danny Briggs well caught at slip by Keaton Jennings. Sibley watched from the other end and then trudged off. Weather permitting, he will be there again tomorrow. And suddenly, it looks as though there might be a lot of fine tomorrows for him.
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications