No standing on ceremony for Peter Siddle as Dom Sibley’s dour comeback is thwarted

Warwickshire 159 for 7 (Bresnan 47*, Sibley 43, Siddle 4-36) vs Essex

That long-awaited return to a county cricket ground proved to be slow, bleak and joyless. And that was just Dom Sibley‘s innings. But by the time a filthy squall of rain blew across Chelmsford at 4.30pm to coat the ground in an unseasonably wintery glow of floodlights (and drive away each and every one of the 100-odd diehards at the Hayes Close End of the ground) Sibley’s stereotypically dour 43 from 120 balls had been trumped by another notable returnee to the fray.

When Essex won the 2019 County Championship title, amid emotional scenes at Taunton two years ago, Peter Siddle‘s presence had been conveyed via a cardboard cut-out in the corner of the dressing room. He had played an integral role in the triumph with 34 wickets at 20.08 in the first half of the campaign, before departing for his Ashes swansong, and then remaining sidelined by the pandemic throughout last summer’s Bob Willis Trophy triumph.

And so this was Siddle’s first outing at Chelmsford since July 2019 – when, as it happens, he’d claimed a first-innings five-for, also against Warwickshire – and his first chance to take formal receipt of that elusive winner’s medal, along with his county cap (No. 164, for those who like to keep tabs) during an on-field presentation during the lunch interval.

But before he’d had a chance to try out that new headgear for size, Siddle’s impact on the day’s events had been more than just ceremonial. The first of his four wickets took just three balls to arrive, as Will Rhodes fenced to fourth slip having withstood the new ball for 10 dour overs, and Siddle had doubled Warwickshire’s jeopardy before the end of his second over, as Rob Yates lost his middle stump to a nip-backer.

Jamie Porter added a third before lunch, as Pieter Malan kissed a beautiful angled delivery through to Tom Westley at third slip, but throughout a grim first session, Sibley endured with painstaking attrition – parked on the front dog like the part-man, part-bollard that he has been brought up to be, refusing to let the bowlers see anything but the maker’s name as he made up for lost time after his early-season finger break.

Sibley’s runs were scarce and hewn from granite – a first-ball clip for four off Porter was a freebie that never looked like tempting him into thinking his eye was in, and in fact almost a sixth of his final total came in one bizarre moment when Adam Wheater fielded a return from the deep and winged a shy away through fine leg, to gift his quarry a lesser-spotted seven.

Timing has never been at the core of Sibley’s game – although you might argue that his comic timing was spot-on in the circumstances. What more hearty fare could the Chelmsford faithful have wished for on such a blustery and soul-sapping morning, than the sight of 55 runs being chiselled out in 28 overs of the session, with Sibley himself dripping along at a personal rate of exactly one for every over, like the inexorable impact of gravity on the panes of a stained-glass window.

Even though he was dropped on 32 at leg slip (a position that Kane Williamson will no doubt have inked into his battle-plan) it still came as something of a shock when, in the first hour after lunch, Sibley was turned inside-out by the ever-excellent Sam Cook to give Simon Harmer the easiest of his two catches at second slip.

For the most part, Sibley had treated his stay like a live net. But, on a day when those in action of England’s probable middle order at Lord’s – Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes – contributed 0, 0 and 0 between them, the barnacle tendencies of their incumbent opener were made all the more valuable by hindsight.

Talking of hindsight, it seems extraordinary that Warwickshire would inflict such a scenario on themselves by choosing to bat first in such conditions, although given the knowledge of what Harmer tends to do on this ground in the fourth innings, it was perhaps a question of which bullet they would prefer to dodge. As it was, a scoreline of 76 for 5, on a day when barely any other contest had got beyond the opening pleasantries, was less than ideal by any standards.

But Warwickshire, to their credit, refused to buckle to the conditions. In the 40th over, Harmer’s first-ball proper (after a sighter over before lunch) was blatted high over long-on by a pre-emptive Michael Burgess, who manned the barricades alongside the inestimable Tim Bresnan with a gutsy 56-run stand for the sixth wicket.

But just when Burgess seemed to have weathered the worst of Essex’s threat, he was undone through a combination of bowler skill and personal misjudgement, as Siddle nipped a length ball off the seam to pluck out his off stump as he shouldered arms for 35.

Olly Stone – who would surely have relished cranking it up in these conditions – didn’t last long as Harmer swooped brilliantly to prise him out for 4, his right hand almost behind him as he plucked the edge to give Cook his second of the day.

But Bresnan, his stock seeming to rise as a county batsman with every passing year, endured through two closes – the first at tea when the apocalypse appeared to have ended any prospect of further play, and then after a further 2.4 overs in the late evening, in which time he flipped Porter over midwicket to finish as the day’s top scorer on 47 not out.

By then, Essex’s paltry returning crowd had fled for home. The circumstances of the post-lockdown reboot could not be less ideal for Chelmsford, a tight ground with a cramped perimeter, where numerous choke-points render social distancing impossible and so have limited their numbers to a handful. But at least those that were present were able to witness their table-topping outfit doing the needful on the field once again – in spite of Sibley and the weather doing their best to be further killjoys.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket

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