Dom Sibley collapsed to the ground in a heap. The rib bone had cracked. The man who threw the fiery lifter, the third ball into the nets session, coach Gareth Townsend, was worried, feeling guilty even. “Oh no! what have I done here; have I been too rough? After all he is not even 15 years old.” Sibley scrambled to his feet to have his Sachin Tendulkar moment — main khelega — or rather ” I will bat on.” He did a short while before he was eventually dragged to a hospital. Townsend, Surrey’s academy director, laughs at the memory of the now-25 year old, a decade later.
“I had to always, I mean always, literally force him out of the batting nets. I have seen him from when he was nine ; nothing has changed. He just loves batting long. From the outside, you might think ‘hmm the hands go too far out, front knee isn’t flexing, is he playing too much across to the on side — I have heard all that over the years but he has always worked his own method.”
It’s end 2018, and Sibley has endured his first real fallow run with the bat — in his first season for Warwickshire after shifting from Surrey –and had gone knocking on the doors of the technical coach Gary Palmer, who had helped fortify Alastair Cook’s batting at his Palmer Batting Lab. Befittingly so, as at times, his batting style is like watching a the mirror image of Cook.
“I cranked up the bowling machine,” Palmer tells this newspaper. “But hold back the ball. And he immediately tipped over across his front foot.” Over the next three intense hours of the specialised session, where he faced 90 overs almost, the solution was drilled in.
The traditional side-on stance was changed to slightly front on. Palmer’s forte. “For me, the key is when you play straight, the laces of shoes should point down the track. Of both shoes. The chest bone is straighter, front shoulder towards non-striker, and both eyes on the ball. Sibley got it immediately. His head moves straight forward and remains still now. A slightly front stance allows him to be better balanced and hands can come through the line nice and smooth. We had a few more top-up sessions after that,” Palmer says. The big runs flooded in again.
“Just don’t ask him to cook, please,” says Will Rhodes, his opening partner in crime at Warwickshire and the mate who shared a flat with “Sibbers” and Olly Stone. “We always gave him cleaning duties. We cook, you scrub, was the deal. Worked like a treat. Also, a bit clumsy! I remember he lost Ian Bell’s car keys down a hole and it was hilarious to see him try for an eternity to get it out, which he eventually did.”
Yes Sibbers! 💪
Rhodes’ s tone turns to admiration when talking about Sibley’s cricket. “Very ambitious, insane focus and lots of hard work– forget training sessions, he put in ugly hours in the mornings and nights at the flat working on his game. I was absolutely certain he will open for England.” The duo spent many an hour watching the OTT show ‘Billions’, a potboiler from the world of high finance.
It was at a mock version of another show ‘Dragons Den’ (like Mark Cuban’s Shark Tank) where entrepreneurs pitch an idea to business heads, where he made his first impression with the bigwigs at Surrey. Chris Adams, former England player and the then director of cricket at Surrey, remembers calling the young academy players to the Dragon’s Den to “interrogate” them in the characteristic style of the show. “Simple questions really, one I remember was ‘what’s your ambition?’ Most went for the usual answers like playing professional cricket for Surrey. Sibley’s was a powerful response. ‘I want to challenge myself to see how far I could go. I don’t want to put limits. I want to see how good I can be’. For a young teenager, that was something, I thought. Later, I remembered that when I handed him the professional contract,” Adams tells this newspaper. “His drive and ambition were quite evident.”
An excellent session.
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) February 5, 2021
Surrey couldn’t quite deliver his ambition as quickly as he desired and he took the big decision to move to Warwickshire where he would run into the head coach Jim Troughton. It was at a Costa coffee shop near the Marylebone station in London that Troughton met up with Sibley to offer a move to Warwickshire.
The runs didn’t come in initially. “I think he put too much pressure on himself to show to us. I quickly realised that consistency of selection was the key with him. Once he understood that selection isn’t an issue, he started flowing. I told him, “you are here for a reason. So, don’t worry about it at all. Your technique and amazing concentration will get you through. This is just an early-season wobble.” Four-five hundreds came at the back end of that season and the start of the next,” Troughton says.
In September 2018, he worked a lot on his game – and shoulder alignment – with Warwickshire’s batting coach Tony Frost who remembers one game in particular, against R Ashwin’s Nottinghamshire in 2019. “He hit a double hundred in the first innings, and then again another hundred in the second when we chased a total. It wasn’t a turner, but the application, the skill, the drive to keep going on and on for four days on the field was quite something. Then there was another big knock against Jofra Archer in Sussex that stands out. Very strong-willed and unbelievable concentration levels,” Frost says.
Cricket ran in the family, father Mark and grandfather Peter played for the Ashtead CC where he would also end up. “He remains resolute in his loyalty to our club,” says Matt Homes, an early mentor. “I first saw him when he was 6, whacking the balls thrown by his dad. He was always a big lad for his age and his hand-eye coordination stood out. From an early age, he played up a couple of age groups due to both physicality and skill level. His father’s coaching was the greatest influence, I would say.” Homes remembers a big hundred from a nine-year-old Sibley against a Surrey CCC age-group team but it was a double hundred for Ashtead when he was 15 that convinced him he was earmarked for greater things. “It was against the club Weybridge, including James Ormond who has played Test cricket for England. That showed what a special talent Dom was,” Homes says.
He surrounded himself with cricket everywhere – the club, academy or even at the Whitgift school in Croydon where the teacher and coach Neil Kendrick remembers an “academically bright student who was also in rugby and football teams. “He captained our school team for two years when he wasn’t even 16; unheard at our school. He commanded respect from the older kids. The only downside was that he is a Manchester United fan, which I would take the mickey out of!” Kendrick says. At school too, the tales revolve around his numerous marathon knocks and tendency to coax coaches to bowl at him for hours.
In Sri Lanka, on turners, he had a bit of a struggle before finding his way with a fifty in the last innings. Gareth Townsend, the Surrey Academy director and former first-class player wasn’t too fussed. “I knew he would find a way. After all, we had worked a lot in his teens against spin.” It has an Indian connection. “In one of my trips to India, I picked up a jar of marble-sized balls. Back at the academy, I remember having a wet marble floor as a pitch and Sibley and other kids batting with thin bats against those small balls. It would skid, it would turn, and our focus was three things: Reading of the length, the use of the crease – commit fully forward or back – and playing with turn. You saw all that today, didn’t you? Even our batting against spin philosophy at our academy is largely derived from the Indian way. I didn’t see Indians use too many sweeps – it is a great tool of course and these days we too incorporate it – but use the feet and hands. That’s what you see in Sibley too.”
In the initial days with U-19 cricket, Sibley developed a bit of reputation for playing too much to the leg side. He didn’t agree with that assessment and Townsend remembers convincing him. “He was right, he did have the off-side shots but we also did a video analysis, showed him and suggested that his off-side game can improve a lot more. He is open but can be stubborn, strong-minded, he has to be convinced before he agrees. And he did. We worked a lot on how his hands come through so that the bat-face doesn’t shut. Though still, the best signs that he is in flow are still the shots he plays straight to midwicket. Not across, but he gets into a nice position to play it straight there if you know what I mean. As he did in this knock. Even though he has a Test hundred in Cape Town, this India tour could be the making of Sibley,” Townsend says.
Even as all his backers and coaches vouch for his talent and focus, and credit his father’s hand in it, perhaps the man who punted a lot on his future was his maternal grandfather Kenneth Mackenzie. When Sibley was five, Kenneth first predicted he would play for England. When he was 9, Kenneth checked the odds with the bookmakers. When he was 16, the grandfather placed two punts – at 150-1 and 66-1 – on him playing for England. The grandfather died in 2011, but eight years later, his daughter went on to collect 21000 pounds (almost INR 20 lakh 98 thousand) in winnings after Sibley made his England debut.