Hundreds from Ben Stokes and Dom Sibley put England in a commanding position against West Indies on the second day of the second Test at Old Trafford. The hosts would believe that their first innings total of 469/9 declared would suffice to square the series on a surface that could deteriorate.
As the day progressed, the narrative shifted from Sibley’s patience to Stokes’s restraint. Both departed with three-figure scores — the opener compiled 120 and the all-rounder composed 176 — but as much as the runs, they offered reassurance. England seems to have unearthed a genuine inheritor to Alastair Cook’s legacy in Sibley. England has been in desperate pursuit of batsmen with Test match temperament. As encouragingly, they have coerced a maturer version of Stokes. Unless it’s a cruel coincidence, England are gradually finding the right pieces to fill in their batting jigsaw.
It’s beyond argument that Stokes is a splendid batsman, but he hasn’t been quite as consistent in this format as he or England would have wished for. An average in the low 30s is a travesty to his immense abilities. But during the composition of this knock, he went a long way in demonstrating that he has turned a corner and might be yet to hit the peak as a Test batsman.
On Friday, dark and desolate, he faced 356 deliveries, the most he has ever in a Test match, and 38 more deliveries than he had in seven innings in South Africa early this year. He only hit 17 fours and a brace of sixes. He hung in the unusual company of stealthy singles and urgent doubles, so much so that he seemed an unfamiliar man.
Maybe, it could be a sign of retooling, re-casting from cavalier mould to a roundhead role. Now that he’s England’s second most experienced batsmen, amidst a bunch of youngsters cutting their teeth in, he couldn’t be flippant. Since his Leeds heist, he had gone 16 outings with a solitary hundred. He ensured he got one here.
Later, almost an hour into the second session, he began to accelerate, adding 73 off 97 balls in the session to tea, seamlessly shifting gears. There were more instances of that cavalier batsmanship. He unfurled a gorgeous flick through midwicket off Shannon Gabriel to mark the 250th run of their partnership, after he had lasered the same bowler down the ground. What followed was from his usual manual — the cuts, the drives and the heaves, the thrilling stuff that makes Stokes.
But England would be rather pleased with his pre-century approach, the slowest of his ten Test centuries (255 balls). He was less Stokes and more, well, Sibley, who had been England’s find of the year.
En route to completing his second hundred in eight Tests, Sibley collected a fair bit of unfashionable trivia. He became the third slowest century-maker for England in a home Test, behind Michael Atherton and Keith Fletcher. His first hundred runs featured only four boundaries, the fewest by an England batsman since Graham Thorpe, the team’s batting coach, who reached three figures at Lahore in 2000 with a solitary boundary.
The glacially slow batting before Stokes’s teeing up was as much as a reflection of the sluggish wicket as England’s necessity to pile on a gargantuan total in the absence of bowlers with genuine firepower, which they would require if the strip doesn’t shed its unresponsive nature. If it does, off-spinner Dom Bess could play a definitive role in deciding the match. Their intention was solely on laying the foundation for a big score.
As a consequence, the tourists hardly got any succour. It was understandable that West Indies delayed taking the new ball until the 93rd over. The old ball was moving around, the bowlers were putting on a much-improved shift and the ball was so soft that it made run-making incredibly difficult. The new ball, at this juncture, carried the risk of Stokes cutting loose. They wouldn’t have taken this long had they taken an early wicket or two. It could be misconstrued as defensive cricket, but they were so much behind in the game that they could not afford the slightest of risks.
In fairness, they bowled much better than they had on Day One. They bowled much fuller in the morning session and induced plenty of false strokes. The problem, though, was an inability to maintain the pressure of seriously testing balls. They were unfortunate with their reviews as well — several of them came down to umpire’s call. Similarly, inside edges eluded the stumps, outside edges evaded the fields-men. Piling on their agony, Alzarri Joseph and Shannon Gabriel picked injuries that restricted their influence.
Later, Kemar Roach ended his long wait for wickets with a twin blow, Roston Chase picked his second five-for, but England have their insignia stamped on this match.
Brief Scores: England 469/9 declared in 162 ov (Dom Sibley 120, Ben Stokes 176, Roston Chase 5/172) v West Indies 32/1 in 14 overs at stumps.