One sort-of-quaint-but-largely-hollow response to the rampant charge of the human race towards mass-everything-ness has been to embrace the artisanal – the handpicked, the handcrafted, the handwoven. For the dopamine-demanding generation whose working week is all hustle and bustle, when the weekend lands they make sure to “‘grab” their coffee in a place where the bricks are self-consciously exposed, there’s a penny farthing strung up on the wall like a deposed dictator and the bloke lovingly grinding the beans looks like Wyatt Earp. Now, slow is desirable, slow is profitable, slow is cool. But not in cricket.
Wenceslasaire, spangladasha… shnamistoflopp’n − the Inuits are said to have 500 words for snow. Cricket has almost as many for its own increasingly rare sight. In the modern game they are lesser spotted than the Yeti, and almost as abominable. Blockers. Limpets. Dawdlers. Plodders. The belligerent. The unbudgeable. The dull. The Stonewallers.
Not to be confused with the “cooly unhurried” or the “romantically languid”, the stonewallers are a maligned and chastised few. This “going-nowhere brigade” invite a particular kind of opprobrium. They are the tractor-on-a-country-lane, the tourist-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-escalator, the dial-up-dinosaurs in a fibre-optic-world.
Take the case of Dom Sibley, whose century against West Indies in July, and general approach to batting, has divided opinion. Since coming into the team late last year, he has, along with Rory Burns, provided solidity at the top of the order – something the Test side has been crying out for in the post-Strauss era, Alastair Cook getting through more partners than a Dallas divorcee with a serious case of “Tinder finger”. Isn’t Sibley everything we longed for?
Admittedly, his knock at Manchester (scoring 120 in more than nine hours at the crease) was slow – the slowest century by an Englishman for 20 years and second-slowest by an England batsman on home soil ever – but it took England’s total beyond 400, something they hadn’t achieved in a home Test for three years, and ultimately set up a victory.
During Trevor Bayliss’ tenure – which featured much hand-wringing about England being unable to bat for long periods, to dig in and set up a game, to put in the hard yards in tricky conditions – he made no bones about his desire to have attacking batsmen in the top three. “If you’ve got three who don’t necessarily get on with it, you can be half-an-hour before lunch at 0-30, you happen to lose two and it’s 2-30 two hours in,” said the Australian on England’s 2015-16 tour of South Africa. “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.”
Chris Silverwood’s appointment as head coach has brought about a change in philosophy. The muddled mantras of Bayliss’ reign, of being “attacking in defence”, were replaced with a simpler, more patient approach. Sibley faced 372 balls in his Old Trafford knock. By comparison, Jason Roy managed 229 balls across eight innings in last year’s Ashes. Sibley builds a platform for victory out of granite rather than sand.
“One thing we’ll look at is building a batting group that can bat long periods,” Silverwood announced when he took the job last October. “It sounds old‑fashioned but we’ve got to recognise that.” After some teething problems in New Zealand, it is an approach that has worked well, with series wins in South Africa and at home against West Indies achieved in a far less skittish fashion.
And yet as Sibley approached his century in Manchester, many of the plaudits were laced with criticism. Some were constructive, highlighting in particular his need to rotate the strike against the spinners, but others seemed unduly harsh. On Sky Sports, Michael Holding even argued Sibley’s was a “great innings” for West Indies due to the time it had taken out of the game. And as the innings progressed, the great fast bowler went further, suggesting Sibley was acting selfishly by not increasing his scoring rate: “He got them [three figures] a long time ago. It’s now time for the team.” England went on to wrap up the victory in four days.
Guardian writer Andy Bull celebrated Sibley’s ability to play within his limitations along with his determination to follow his plans and maximise the amount of runs he can score. He also described the opener as having “a good game for radio”. It’s an interesting phrase, Sibley’s batting providing the beat rather than the melody, his slow progress allowing for flights of fancy on air and the opportunity to go about your day with only one ear on the match. This dip-in-dip-out way of following a match is at odds with cricket-as-commodity, as “unmissable” entertainment in and of itself, something which Sky obviously want to maximise.
An audience coming of age who have been fed a diet of ODI, T20 and now even T10 cricket might not necessarily warm to the slower paced, but often no-less-riveting, periods of Test cricket. It could be that Sibley’s wagyu batting doesn’t give the immediate rush of a processed pyro-patty which the T20 generation are used to and desire. England have transitioned from “drive-thru” to “slow-food movement” under the same captain and in the space of a few months.
Some of the snark surrounding Sibley is part and parcel of the stonewaller’s lot. The first rule of their creed reads: “Get your head down, focus on every ball, ignore everything else.” But cricket is a fickle business. Take Jason Roy in last summer’s Ashes. Was it ever suggested he was selfish for playing in the aggressive manner he is known for, rather than adapting his game for the good of the team? It didn’t work out and he was dropped, but his character or motivation was never called into question.
There is something about the stonewaller that makes them a target for misgivings; their “over my dead body” attitude and sheer bloody-mindedness can inspire admiration and suspicion, often teetering between the two. Stonewallers can be considered noble one minute, ignoble the next.
Geoffrey Boycott was run out by his own teammates; Mike Brearley and Chris Tavaré endured slow handclaps and derision; Nick Compton lost his way amid the scrutiny; Joe Denly and his “dentury” (supposedly focusing on facing 100 deliveries rather than his tally in the runs column) filled plenty of column inches and tongue-in-cheek tweets. They all became divisive figures.
Michael Atherton, scorer of four of England’s 10 slowest centuries in terms of balls faced, describes a batsman’s task as a solitary one, but that it is “good to feel that the dressing room is with you”. At club level it’s easy to see why a stonewaller would become a figure of antipathy, using up precious deliveries and time, denying teammates the opportunity they have looked forward to all week or dreamed of all winter. But surely in a Test match, the dressing room would always be “with” the batsmen in the middle?
It’s worth nothing that Atherton once famously declared an innings at the SCG during the 1994-95 Ashes when Graeme Hick was on 98. Hick was certainly no stonewaller but he had becalmed as he approached his century, the pressure of a looming personal milestone momentarily turning him into one. Atherton later regretted and apologised for the declaration but the suggestion that Hick was putting himself before the team stung.
Atherton has been on both sides of the stone wall. Under Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher during the infamous Karachi Test of 2000, he recalls being “frankly pissed off” at the captain and coach discussing whether he should drop down the order for the harum-scarum run-chase. This after he had kept England in the game with a nine-hour, 430-ball century in the first innings that had bought “howls of derision” from the press. Atherton’s seniority in the dressing room ensured he retained his position at the top of the order and he got the team off to a flier, scoring 26 off 33 balls including five fours. The shackles were off and England went on to complete a famous victory.
Sibley actually has a decent T20 record but is very much a junior member of the Test side. Sky’s cameras captured, and lingered, on the almost heartbreaking moment in the second Test of the Windies series when Sibley, gambolling off the pitch ready to put his pads on, was told by Joe Root to stand aside for the big guns of Stokes and Buttler, as England sought quick runs before a declaration. Sibley’s card had been marked by the captain, his face fell in wounded acceptance. The stonewaller’s tag is a hard one to shift.