Updated: May 21
Burns and Sibley: Stick by your guns
As ever the large proportion of stats in this piece were provided by the brilliant @JamesMcCaghrey on Twitter; James is one of the best accounts out there and his numbers are superb! Go follow him now- if you don’t already…. Do it.
Burns and Sibley arrived in English cricket around 15 months ago and they offered England stability and fight or in other words exactly what England lacked. Then after a rollercoaster winter, in which no England batsman was particularly amazing, a lot of cries came out for the heads of England's opening pair. In my opinion this is entirely ridiculous yet sadly predictable. Lack of foresight is something that is common among most sporting cultures but in English cricket I have seen it at it’s strongest and most aggressive. One innings and a player's career is either reignited or they’re unselectable. A bad summer after a supreme winter is enough to bin them off no matter how much promise they have shown. Memories of the past are soon forgotten and so are the numbers that come with them and then England fans are left scratching their heads asking “Why did we drop Carberry again?”. Yet again England suffered a poor winter and the immediate response was fans wanting to make change for the sake of change. Dropping Burns and Sibley would be a disaster move by England in a time where they need stability more than anything.
One does feel that the natural starting point is to say why the calls for dropping either of the opening pair are quite frankly absurd. It is common that after something goes so incredibly wrong the immediate reaction is to want to change it. Results you wanted aren’t there? Ok let us simply try something else. Sadly cricket doesn’t work like that instead it’s a game of patience and allowing players to grow and mature and understand the difficulties of international cricket.
All these calls for one of the two to be dropped come off the back of the aforementioned rollercoaster winter. Now whilst neither of the openers stats were outstanding no ones were. But let's examine it a bit deeper shall we?
I will start with Burns as I feel his case was the easiest. Some will, justifiably, point to his silly dismissals and argue well a solid test match opener simply wouldn’t have done that. A reverse sweep on 30 odd is never a good look and neither is working against the spin but not committing, but I do feel that the context of where he batted and who against is vital. To begin with Burns hadn’t played cricket in a number of months and was returning to the test side in sweltering heat having just left his new born child and wife back in England. A lapse in concentration would’ve happened to anyone. Furthermore Burns was batting in India against Ashwin. Now if you wonder why this is so important: Ashwin averages around 19 vs left hand bats (LHB), ok read that again then one more time then go and delete your tweet saying we should drop Burns or that other one claiming Stokes struggles against spin. In essence Burns was batting against the guy who demolishes LHB like they’re not even there and he was doing it on some pretty bad wickets. Burns didn’t look good but if I’m honest, and history would testify to this, not many LHB would’ve done much better in that situation.
Sibley is a bit of a tougher one with this being his first tour to the subcontinent he wasn’t going to find it easy but the calls were for his head after the first game in Sri Lanka then they switched to Crawleys after the 2nd. Sibley started off the winter looking like a walking wicket but soon lightened up on his feet and scored back to back 50s; one on a turning wicket one on a flat one with nothing in it and he did so in the process of batting out the day a feat which so few England openers have done since Cook. Then plodded along Axar Patel, sunglasses and all, who then proceeded to just take apart every right hander who dared take guard in front of him. Patel had the series of a lifetime and so did Embuldiniya. Batting tracks were poor but Sibley showed signs of change and ultimately copped a few unlucky dismissals and one really stupid one. 2 50s-both of them match defining- and batting out the day aren’t bad returns for a first tour of the subcontinent especially one as anti batsmen as the one that has just passed.
Not only this but both of these two players have bounced back from issues in the past especially technical ones. After Ireland came to town Burns was at risk of losing his place and who knows we may have seen Bairstow and Roy open in tests as well just to give Trevor the perfect send off. But Burns went back to Surrey where he made a slight tweak and voi la he hit his maiden test hundred and was arguably England's second best batsmen between the Ashes and his injury, averaging 44 and hitting 2 100s. Sibley had a clear issue with the ball in and around his armpit and this proved a real issue for him. The Warwickshire Wall made a few changes and hey presto he looked a million dollars in the summer grinding out another test century at Old Trafford and offering England a lot of stability at the top of the order. Dropping these two- or anyone- after the worst winter for batting in a long time is a disgraceful call and one seemingly made on nothing more than the desire for change and the desire for success in the here and now rather than patience with two consistent run scorers.
England have a difficult home summer facing two of the best sides in the world in quick succession and they will need the best they can get in their batting order and well Burns and Sibley are that. England's opening pair have very respectable records in England in test cricket and division1 cricket and more than this they’ve done it as openers. Opening in England is tough like it’s really tough. Since 2010 it is the 3rd hardest place to open- behind Ireland and the Windies- with openers averaging 32 in the time period.
Burns averages 44.91 in Div 1 cricket and 31.23 in tests in England, though given that test cricket is statistically 22% harder than Div 1 cricket you would expect Burns to average around 35. Therefore Burns has almost certainly been underperforming his expected output and of course this could be down to bad batting but there are also other factors because cricket is one of the most volatile sports there is. Burns’ underperformance is, in my eyes, largely down to some bad wickets (Ireland at Lords) and some brilliant bowling (Shaheen). The query for me is why drop him when he has shown every indication of being able to mix it with the best of them? Burns has shown he has the game to be a very very solid test match opener and on a consistent basis. Burns is one of the best opening batsmen in the country in which opening is the hardest position in the batting order; for all the talk of Burns’ technique it is one which has brought him a great deal of success over the years. I mean 5 successive years of 1000 county runs opening the batting in a decade in which the contest between bat and ball has been far more in favour of the latter is a supreme achievement. Though one must add that of course if Burns was to receive a haircut there’s no doubt in my mind that he would score 3 test hundreds in 2 innings-somehow just somehow he’d find a way.
Dominic Sibley is a run machine. I mean Burns’ average is meek in comparison to the Warwickshire openers hefty division 1 average of 50.56 and when we follow the same logic as before his test average should be in and around 40. Again this is very respectable for a test match opener in England. The encouraging thing is mainly that Sibley has shown he can perform to this standard and probably above it as from the series in South Africa until Sri Lanka Sibley was averaging 38.47 with 2 100s in only 10 matches which for a new test match opener is a superb return. Sibley also had an impressive home summer hitting his second test century and some gritty 50’s. Yet for any avid watcher of the division 1 County Championship this success of the Vicars should be of no surprise. 2019 was the year of Sibley in division 1 cricket as he was the dominant force not just among openers but among all batsmen. Sibley hit 1324 runs at an astounding average of 69.68 racking up 5 100s, 2 of which were doubles including a mammoth high score of 244. The next closest was Gary Ballance with 975 runs at 46.42; Sibley was comfortably miles ahead of all those behind him. Among openers the next best is Alastair Cook and after that his next best contemporary was Zak Crawley with 820 runs at 34.12. For all the talk of slow scoring Sibley has shown an innate ability to block that little dark red dukes ball of death whilst also going big in his scoring when he has the confidence. Confidence is key with SIbley more than any other player. Sibley when he is full of confidence is a player with every shot in the book; he has a glorious straight drive and a wonderful cut shot too, it’s just he has always been one who does what is right by the side. However this is beside the point. The point is Sibley is Englands best opener in recent times I mean 69.68 isn’t a fluke and neither was his hundred at the MCG under lights for the Lions nor were either of his two test tons which came when England needed them most.
Now one downfall of such superb domestic records and dominance is over expectation. The man who encapsulates this most is Graeme Hick. Hick was the best batsmen in county cricket by some distance before his debut. So what did England do? Well the sensible thing to do would’ve been to recognise and nurture this talent knowing it will take time for him to recognise his potential and that by sticking by him you can help him to do so. Alas the expectations for him were set demonstrably higher than that of your average batsmen and higher than they ever should have been. I mean it’s just absurd we set these astronomical expectations for players and then when they don’t hit them instead of letting them flourish and grow we say “send them back to county cricket to score runs”. Why? Why on earth does a player who has dominated the county circuit need to go back to it. If you want to see a player reach their true potential in test match cricket you need to stick by them. So the expectations for Burns and Sibley are again too high but their returns aren’t what they consistently should be but there is no need to drop them as they have shown signs of being able to accomplish this. Neither of these batsmen will average 45 in their test career and that’s fine because it’s they’re what England have right now and honestly they could do a lot lot worse. This desire for the opener who isn’t there is absurd and it’s illustrated by the calls for a Tom Lammonby debut after 6 first class games. We need to let players grow and we need to give them time and space to adapt. I mean there were calls for Sibley to be dropped after 2 games saying he doesn’t have the metal. Then 4 games later he topped the run scoring charts and averaged 50. Expectations and fantasies will always run wild but these are two guys who can do it and have done it in international cricket. Base their aspirations in the here and now and not on the backdrop of Cook Strauss and Trescothick.
But both Sibley and Burns have an outstanding domestic record and in recent times hardly any opener comes close. The only opener who is near the level of these two is Mark Stoneman but Stoneman had an even worse start to his test career with an average of 27 after 11 matches (which you would expect given his Division 1 average of around 33). So how do the two best run scorers in the country fare together? Well before the winter Burns and Sibley were a growing pair developing a partnership and actually they weren’t doing too poorly at all. When you rank all England opening partnerships since 2010 on the average numbers of overs faced per out Sibley and Burns rank 2nd with a respectable 13.6-this is pre winter tour; as I have already said judging them on the winter tours is ridiculous-with Cook and Compton coming out trumps with a very solid 21.6. Their overall numbers aren’t horrendous either as in 14 innings they had made 468 runs together at 33.42 with 3 50 partnerships and 1 100 partnership whilst scoring at 2.44 rpo-again pre winter. So whilst they don’t get England off to a flyer they can offer stability and have delivered on this before. Importantly they also don’t just sit about doing nothing either they offer a somewhat comfortable balance.
Now England don’t travel to the subcontinent for some time and they face the three best seam attacks in the world and well actually Burns and Sibley are ok against seam. They negated the Indian seamers well for most of the trip and did so last summer too (minus Shaheen giving Burns a working over but these things happen). When India last toured England and Cook and Jennings were opening it felt that one of them, if not both, were a walking wicket but this summer Burns and Sibley do not give off that same impression. These two are England's best openers and have been for some time (most notably Burns) and they are batsmen batting in an era dominated by the ball especially in England and especially when opening. No opener, since 2017 has scored more than 300 runs in a series against England (Kl Rahul comes closest with 299) Burns has done this against the best pace attack in the world and Sibley did it this summer against two very formidable attacks. Burns and Sibley are developing a partnership and gaining confidence which is something England can only benefit from. But ultimately they are offering England stability in a time in which they need it more than anything. I mean if I had to choose my openers to open at the Gabba in a few months time without a doubt it’s the incumbent duo and no one else even comes close.
One of the things that a director of football- a position situated at most modern football powerhouses- does is they plan succession plans and they plan for the future. Does English cricket need someone in this mould or do they need to simply accept that they are no longer one of the titans of the world and they are a team in rebuild? For me it's firmly the latter In terms of finance they’re in the big 3 without a shadow of a doubt but in terms of test cricket? They’re nowhere near their opponents. Now this is fine it happens to everyone but the answer isn’t constant change looking for the ready made here and now. Instead the answer is looking at what you have and how to get the best out of these players and also looking at what you will get from those who are a bit younger. What England have right now is two guys who have scored bucket loads of runs, had good success and have offered stability and consistency which England haven’t had for a long time. They also allow England to get the best out of their better batsmen (Crawley, Root, Stokes, Pope and Buttler) as they can all bat in their best positions without any real trouble. There is no real outstanding unheard of issue with England right now. They’re a teething side who are still finding their feet in test match cricket. Chopping and changing with no real reason benefits no one and harms everyone. I mean look at Ben Foakes who was inexplicably axed from the side, despite being Englands best player, and he hasn’t looked the same since. Burns and Sibley are good players, the numbers back it up and they’re going through a lean patch, it’s expected; it’s test cricket. So before we brandish our pitchforks and take to the streets outside of Ed Smith's office let us just see how they grow as players. Let us stick by them. England needs to trust them and English fans need to stop jumping to rash conclusions based off of little evidence often derived from context. The next decade is bright for England with a whole roster of young talent emerging and one of if not both Burns and Sibley will be there for a good part of it. I have faith in them and I hope that England does too.