A reminder: there’s an important difference between ‘being stranded/going nowhere’ and battling it out. And the latter is often a key, to Test Match cricket. Also it may be that Sibley was picked for exactly those qualities of durability and enduro-stoicism. (Lawrence wasn’t… but read on).
Also note: lodged this baby at 11.15 am, our time. But things move fast, eh?
England are getting battered, in the second Test, at Chennai. All out for less than 140. After Burns’ error – plainly Ishant set him up skillfully but for him not to see off the decent but hardly world-beating delivery that then arrowed predictably inwards, was an ordinary bit of batting – Sibley and Lawrence applied themselves with some rigour. As per what it says on their tin: “bat long”. The Burns wicket looked a combination of nerves, early-doors wooden-ness and technical issues around his extraordinary set-up and bat-swing but I’ll let better minds than mine un-pick all that and move forward.
Some commentators have said that Lawrence was stuck from the outset: I disagree. He played diligently and with care for an hour or so – as did Sibley – looking relatively untroubled. I’m not even convinced that for much of the morning period he found it difficult to score. He just felt that was secondary. Only towards the end of his occupation did it feel that the alleged imperative to tick over got to him – and he looked more susceptible to angst. The moment of his dismissal was then a classic case of bowler-induced mind-boggling, as Ashwin stepped away to up the drama for a final ball before lunch that would claim the young England man’s wicket.
Even that cruel and untimely blow does not mean Lawrence’s first innings knock was without consequence or value, despite his dismissal being for just 9 runs. Any allegation that he ‘ate up 20 balls’ before scoring is a nonsense: part of the job was manifestly to consume deliveries, ease the pain and soften the ball. Any notion that what his captain chose to do was essentially wiser or better is spurious… or at least open to intelligent debate. (Root came out sweeping – sweeping Ashwin, hard and early. Fair enough. Legitimate; bold; a gamble. It didn’t work but you can see why he thought the game demanded a response. And I get there’s an argument that Root went ‘positively’ precisely because the scoring rate was low).
There was bound to be, on this pitch, against this attack, something a sense of vigil about England’s response to the intimidating effort from Rohit Sharma, Rahane and Pant – all of whom got past fifty on the surface. Lawrence and Sibley together looked to begin that vigil, knowing they were on the back foot, with conditions and now crowd conspiring against them. Sibley appears to be born for this potentially crushing scenario: he has the physical and psychological attributes of a low-octane bear. His talent is for appearing unperturbed; munching through time and task.
You can’t help but feel that Lawrence’s job had inevitably been made harder by the third ball exit of Burns. It is likely that this pointed him towards a slightly more conservative approach, even allowing for any possible psychological conditioning around mindset, and/or the independence of all things. I thought Sibley and Lawrence did okay, in the (let’s be honest) inevitably challengingly fraught period after the departure of Burns. Sure it might have been better if they rotated the strike/scored more. Sure this meant that pressure wasn’t released. But they prepare for precisely these moments; they are experts, or developing expertise, in hardcore sport. What we saw from them at the height of this grilling was as encouraging as it was disappointing, in my view.
Foakes finished up highest scorer. After his predictable excellence behind the sticks, does this reinforce any case for selecting him regularly or permanently, in the Test side? Quite possibly. Does this means that Buttler gets dropped? Not necessarily. There are options.
The fitness of Stokes might be influential. If Stokes can play a full part in the bowling unit then things may be less complex – or controversial. He continues at five, with Pope staying in there at six and Foakes batting seven. If Moeen stays pickable (and I hope he does) then there is ample batting (and spin, for most situations, with Ali and Root) plus three specialist bowler slots. It’s not like-for-like – Buttler is arguably unique – but you are effectively just changing keepers. So minimal disruption. England get a better wicketkeeper and possibly a more durable, though less mercurial bat.
Despite Buttler’s obvious brilliance, I might ‘drop him’ into a purely white-ball role. He plays everything, short-format-wise and maybe succeeds Morgan as skipper. He wouldn’t want to drop out of Test contention and he wouldn’t. You review: you look at form, experience and suitability for particular series. Currently I’d say keep it simple, get Foakes in the team. If Pope doesn’t come through then maybe Buttler bats six.
Great teams have fantastic subs, or twelfth men or women. We are already seeing that this England Squad is exactly that, rotating to maintain balance, quality and wellbeing in the age of Shedloads of Action and (incidentally) a plague. Oh – and remember currently the fella Crawley is out: he’s looked a million dollars, on times. Something always has to give.