Confident Sibley braces for newer challenges after success in SA

INTERVIEW Sibley scored a ton and helped England Lions beat Australia A recently. © Getty Dom Sibley has certainly racked up the air miles this winter. Since November, he has played in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. On Monday (March 2), he will fly to Sri Lanka with the rest of England's squad for…


Sibley scored a ton and helped England Lions beat Australia A recently.

Sibley scored a ton and helped England Lions beat Australia A recently. © Getty

Dom Sibley has certainly racked up the air miles this winter. Since November, he has played in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. On Monday (March 2), he will fly to Sri Lanka with the rest of England’s squad for a two Test series. After that, he will head back home to get stuck into the county season. “It’s been pretty relentless,” he admits. “But I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Sibley, England’s incumbent Test opener, is speaking to Cricbuzz by phone from Melbourne where he has just been part of the first ever England A or Lions team to beat Australia A in a four-day match. He scored a first innings hundred in the day-night game at the MCG as the Lions recorded a comprehensive victory against a strong Australian team which included Michael Neser and Jackson Bird in their attack. Not that the Lions squad knew they were making history until the game had actually finished.

“No we had no idea,” Sibley says. “We all had a beer in the dressing room after which was nice. Ed Smith [National Selector] and Mo Bobat [ECB Performance Director] were there and they told us.” The Australia A side contained nine internationals with more than 150 international caps between them while the Lions team had just 36 senior caps in their ranks which makes the achievement even sweeter. “Beating them in their own back yard was a pretty good feeling,” Sibley says.

The 24 year-old flew straight to Australia after England’s Test series victory in South Africa. Ordinarily, it might have been a good time for a rest but England’s management were keen for Sibley and Zak Crawley, another who played in South Africa, to gain some experience of Australian conditions ahead of next year’s Ashes series. Sibley’s two centuries – he made 103 against a Cricket Australia XI in Hobart too – suggests he acclimatised pretty well.

Those innings continued the good form Sibley displayed in South Africa. A maiden Test hundred in the New Year’s Test at Newlands was, he says with typical understatement, “pretty cool” and only once, in the first innings of the first Test at Centurion, did he fail to reach 29. He scored the second most runs in the series and occupied 784 balls in all, the most of any batsman on either side. For an England team that has so often found itself 30 for 3 in Test cricket, Sibley’s stickability at the top of the order was most welcome and a key reason for the series win. If there was a criticism, however, it was in his failure to pass 44 in any innings aside from his hundred.

Nevertheless, it was a reassuring rubber for Sibley. The two Tests in New Zealand before Christmas had not gone especially well and, such is the way of things at Test level, he was under a certain amount of pressure ahead of the Tests against the Proteas. Before they began, Sibley admitted that in New Zealand he had moved away from the mental approach that had brought him five hundreds and an average of 69.68 for Warwickshire in last season’s County Championship. Looking back now, he believes he had a far clearer mind in South Africa.

“Thinking about it I didn’t do that much different in terms of my game,” he says of the series in New Zealand. “I had three innings and as an opening batsman you can go three innings without not getting any runs. But I put myself under a bit too much pressure and then didn’t go in with as clear a mind because of that. That’s one thing I did well in the summer in the county season. I just sort of went in and backed my game and what I do well and stuck to that.

“I think I built it all up a bit too much in my own head and I think that’s one thing I really wanted to do in South Africa, really back myself and what I do and try to not treat it like a different game of cricket because its not at the end of the day. Just a bit more pressure and a few more people watching.”

The elevated scrutiny that comes with being an England Test match player is something Sibley knew was coming, particularly given his unorthodox technique. “I know the way I play is always going to draw attention and comments from pundits,” he admits. But Sibley also knows that unorthodoxy is no barrier to success as countless players have proven through the years. He’s certainly not for changing. “I just want to be myself and prove to people, and to myself, that I can do it at that level.”

In that sense then, Sibley certainly feels better about things now than he did after New Zealand. He proved to himself that he could score runs at Test level. He proved he could handle genuine pace in the form of Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje, the type of sustained barrage that Sibley admits he has not faced too much at county level. Following a number of dismissals to deliveries outside off-stump in his first few Tests, he proved that he combat that line of attack as the South African series wore on.

Overall then, Sibley’s first six Tests have been an encouraging start although he is the first to admit that there is plenty more to prove yet. Importantly, however, the ton at Newlands instilled belief. Sibley knows he has the game for the Test arena. Now it’s just about delivering.

“I’d be surprised if anyone told you that they didn’t have doubts,” he says. “You have those thoughts. For me the key thing is trying to accept those rather than push them away and deny them. Just sort of accept them and embrace that challenge as: this is really tough but other people find it tough. Even the best players have tough times. I believe that I can be successful. I believed I could be even when I was struggling.”

The Tests in Galle and Colombo this month will pose a different challenge for Sibley, particularly as he is going to have to adapt from the quick and bouncy pitches of South Africa and Australia to the spin sanctuaries of Sri Lanka. He went on a spin camp to the country when he was 18 so has some understanding of what to expect and he has been training in the nets in Australia with one eye on the series, facing spinners bowling with the new ball for instance. But there will have to be a certain amount of thinking on his feet.

Sibley has already shown he can do that in his short Test career to date, from the low-key start in New Zealand to the solid South African series. If he can continue to learn and adapt, the air miles might continue to stack up over the next few years. “I want to keep playing, keep performing. Scoring a few runs in South Africa made me think I can do it for a long period of time for England at the top of the order. I want to keep building on that now.”

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