New England find value in old virtues as Dom Sibley proves worth

Dom Sibley drives to the boundary Getty Images

On the ground where Trevor Bayliss laid out his "attacking" template for England's Test team, Dom Sibley provided the counter argument for the new-look side

It was here, almost exactly four years ago, that Bayliss spelt out how he wanted his team to play. A methodology that was, by and large, to characterise his period as coach.

"Ultimately, I'd like to see two of the top three guys as attacking-style batters," Bayliss said. "I just think if you have a couple of attacking guys up the top it puts pressure on the opposition a lot easier. If you've got three who don't necessarily get on with it you can be half-an-hour before lunch at 0 for 30, you happen to lose two and it's 2 for 30 two hours in. If you've got guys who can play their strokes and get on with the game, if you lose a couple before lunch you're 80, 90 or 100."

ALSO READ: Burns doubtful for SL, may require ankle surgery

England had a couple of obdurate top-order players at the time. And while one of them, Alastair Cook, was established enough to continue to play the way he knew best, the other one, Nick Compton, seemed unsettled by the comments. In subsequent Tests, he looked ever more skittish as he attempted to show there was more to his game than resistance. Of his four innings immediately after Bayliss' statement, he was caught at mid-on or midwicket on three occasions as he tried to clear the in-field. You could probably make a half-decent case that Compton was ruined by such talk.

But those days have gone. Now, an England side stung by years of batting collapse have a greater appreciation for the old-fashioned values of crease occupation and careful accumulation. And in Sibley they have a master of the art.

Sibley's greatest strengths are probably his patience and his discipline. For while his partner, Zak Crawley, started brightly with five fours in the first 10 overs, he was soon lured into driving at a wide one resulting in an edge to the keeper.

Sibley, who had just 3 at the time, preferred to leave such balls. Indeed, 31 of the 34 balls he faced from Vernon Philander were scoreless. And while there were moments when the bowlers had their heads in their hands as deliveries seemed to pass agonisingly close to the off stump, Sibley knew what he was doing. Frustrated by his refusal to be drawn into anything outside off stump, the bowlers started to aim ever straighter only to see him pick them off his legs. After 49 overs, he had scored 44 runs. But, as the bowlers tired - and they did seem to wilt to a surprising degree in the final session - and the ball softened, he started to take advantage.

He had, to this point in his Test career, failed to do himself justice. Perhaps due to nerves, perhaps forced into shots beyond his comfort zone by the quality of the bowling, he had been lured into a couple of unworthy dismissals, not least edging an attempted defensive stroke off the spin of Mitchell Santner in New Zealand

"After working with Gary Palmer, Sibley made six centuries in nine first-class innings and was the only man in Division One of the 2019 Championship to score 1000 runs"

But there were signs that this innings was coming. He had helped Rory Burns add 52 for the opening wicket in Mount Maunganui and then 92 in Centurion and, while he had not gone on to register a significant personal score, he had achieved one aspect of his role: seeing the shine off the new ball and, in theory, making life easier for the middle order.

He will have come on for this performance, too. He has proved, to himself as much as anyone else, that he can contribute at this level. And, on the day we learned that Burns is likely to miss five Tests with his ankle injury, Sibley has probably earned himself a sustained run in the side.

He showed, also, that he was not limited to leg-side scoring as had been suggested by some after his early performances. While he is, without doubt, strong off his legs and hips, there were two cover drives, both off Kagiso Rabada but one off front and the other off the back foot, as well as a series of cuts when Keshav Maharaj dropped short that demonstrated a wider range of stroke than had previously been apparent. By stumps, he had scored more than half his runs - 43 out of 85 - through the off side.

Any pressure there may have been on him to accelerate was alleviated by the innings of Joe Root. England's captain was inventive, producing an array of sweeps, both conventional and reverse, to prevent Maharaj, the spinner, from emulating the fine job performed by Dom Bess the previous day. While England's middle order contains such strokemakers as Root, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes - and while Tests are scheduled for five days - there is no reason a batsman like Sibley should not perform a valuable role for England.

When the story of Sibley's career is written, it may well be the intervention of Gary Palmer that is seen as a turning point. Palmer, a freelance batting coach, encouraged him to open his stance a little and, as a consequence, improved both his balance and his ability to play straighter. At the time, in September 2018, he was averaging 19.26 for the season. Afterwards he made six centuries in nine first-class innings and was the only man in Division One of the 2019 Championship season to reach the 1000-run landmark. He eventually finished with 1,324.

In truth, he was always a talented player. He scored heavily for England Under-19s - he made a century against a South Africa attack including Rabada on tour here in 2013 - and, as an 18-year-old playing his third game for Surrey, became the youngest English player to score a first-class double-century. He made no secret of his admiration for his team-mate at the time, Hashim Amla, and once posted 236 against Yorkshire with him. There were times here when Sibley's patience and calm at the crease were a little reminiscent of Amla. And there's not much higher praise than that,

There's another aspect to this. A batsman like Sibley also gives England's bowlers the hope of a little more respite. So while the South Africa attack - the relentlessly hostile Anrich Nortje aside - seemed noticeably less potent than in the first innings, England's should have been given a little more time to recover.

The upshot of all this is that England have an excellent chance of achieving their first Test win in Cape Town since 1957. The lead is already 264 and there is plenty of time to come.

The bowlers may have to work hard in South Africa's second innings, though. The cracks in the pitch have not opened as anticipated - perhaps due to the relatively cool weather in Cape Town at present - and it may be that this surfaces flattens out rather than deteriorates. More cool weather is forecast for Monday.

It may also be the South Africa attack is weary. Their batsmen gave them little time to recover after the first innings and this Test has followed hot on the heels of the first. It may yet prove that England's bowlers, given a total to defend and time to recover by Sibley, can find a bit more life in the surface.

Either way, this has been an encouraging innings. And if it leads to a rare overseas win, it may encourage this new England into pursuing this more patient, disciplined style.