Root could learn from Sibley and Stokes

July 19, 2020

You can, with a bit of imagination, just about picture the moment God made Joe Root. Endowing him with those quick feet, good hands and great eyes, you can almost see God high-fiving himself and whispering 'still got it, big fella.'

Dom Sibley, by contrast, looks as if he was fashioned from some leftover bits of aardvark lying around the workshop. He has few of Root's strokes and almost none of his style. His defining stroke is the leave, which he utilised 109 times in his innings (second Test against West Indies), while 141 more balls were defended. He could put the uninitiated off the game for life.

So, spare a thought, for the team putting together the BBC's highlights package. Not only does the show start before the close of play, but trying to put together a set of clips that both accurately represents Sibley's innings and is entertaining is a challenge.

This was meant to be the day The Hundred was launched. It was meant to be the day sixes rained down up the Kia Oval and a new generation of supporters was seduced.

Instead, the editors were obliged to scrabble for the odd nudge off the hip and sharp single to mid-on. Sibley's first boundary came from his 91st ball. There were only three more before he reached his century from his 312th delivery. Only two men - Keith Fletcher (who made a century in 329 balls at The Oval in 1974) and Mike Atherton (who made a 315-ball one at The Oval in 2000) - have ever made slower Test centuries for England in England.

But Sibley provided exactly what was required by England. This is a side which has struggled to build match-defining first-innings totals for years. A side which was bowled out for fewer than 90 three times last year. A side which, in 2018 and 2019, made 400 in their first innings just once. Scoring too slowly was far less of a problem than being bowled out too quickly. While long-form cricket endures, there will always be a place for batters whose strengths are not so much what they do as what they do not. Scoring 450 having been inserted is a fine effort.

The characterisation of Sibley as limited is probably a bit unfair. It's not that he doesn't have the strokes - he has a respectable record as a T20 player - it's that he chooses not to play them. By refusing to be lured into much outside off stump - he scored just 21 runs, none of them boundaries, in front of square on the off side - he reduces risk and settles himself to accumulate when the bowler strays into his areas. He can hook and pull, too. But he is set for the long haul here and has reasoned that, by cutting out such strokes, he is giving himself the best chance to become established.

As he grows in confidence, we may well see him develop his range. He has already improved his running between the wickets by losing weight. But his great skill - and his almost unique selling point - is his solidity. There is no sense making marginal gains in his pace of scoring if the trade-off reduces that solidity.

It's worth reflecting on the mood in the England camp when Sibley started his innings. Two-and-a-half hours ahead of the toss, the players were informed about Jofra Archer's breech of protocols. Already one down in the series and committed to three changes from the team beaten in Southampton, there was suddenly the sort of drama coursing through the dressing room that captains and coaches want to avoid. Within an hour of play starting, England were two down.

But Sibley is anything but dramatic. In an era when others feel the need to dominate, he dares to be dour. He could develop into the platform building opener for which England have been searching since the decline of Alastair Cook.

It was interesting to note that Ben Stokes, by his standards anyway, adopted a similar approach. This was the slowest of Stokes' 18 first-class centuries - it took 255 balls - and his longest ever innings. It underlined the impression that he has developed from dangerous batsman to high-class batsman. He's averaging 58.57 in his last 12 Tests; a period in which he's scored four centuries.

Stokes' improvement has come as he has accepted the need for patience and discipline. Over those last 12 Tests, he has scored his runs at a strike-rate of 57.28. In his first 34 Tests, he scored his runs at a strike-rate of 62.80 but averaged only 32.95. He will always have an extra gear - his final 73 runs took a relatively brisk 101 deliveries - but the consistency has come after he accepted the need to leave a few more balls early in his innings and play the long game. As a result, he has probably developed into England's best Test batsman.

He admitted afterwards that his experience in the first Test, when he made 43 and 46 but failed to go on to play a match-defining innings, had played a part in producing this performance.

"That's something we spoke about after the Ageas Bowl: being clinical" he said. "If you're the person that's managed to get yourself in, you've really got to go and make it count.

"What do I put my form down to? Hunger. Desire. Always wanting to get better. Being an instinctive player is great at times but you can't get too far ahead of yourself. I was more buzzing when I faced 300 balls than when I reached 100. It's something I never thought I would be capable of doing."

But while Sibley is celebrating his second Test century of the year - "sometimes you think maybe the first might be a bit of a fluke," he told Sky afterwards - Root's relatively modest run continues. He averaged 53.28 in his first 65 Tests but only 37.66 from his last 28 Tests. His dismissal here, driving at an outswinger designed to tempt him into just such a stroke, sustained the impression that he is a man rushing to make his mark on games.

The difference between Sibley, Stokes and Root? Well, Len Hutton was once asked if Colin Cowdrey was as good as Wally Hammond. "Hammond was hungrier," Hutton replied. It is that hunger - the hunger to leave and defend and bat for session after session in making ugly runs - that Root seems to be lacking.

He is, no doubt, a wonderful player. And he has, already, a fine record. But if he wants to maximise his substantial ability, he needs to be just a little more ruthless, just a little more selfish and yes, just a little more hungry. Odd though it sounds, Root could learn a bit from Dom Sibley. –Cricinfo

Root could learn from Sibley and Stokes