Cricket news - Fitter, lighter, stronger - Sibley hopes to reap rewards

"It (fitness)o might help my agility in the field and being a better fielder," Sibley

"It (fitness)o might help my agility in the field and being a better fielder," Sibley

It was during the tour to Sri Lanka earlier this year that Dom Sibley, the Surrey opener, had his eyes opened to the standards of fitness expected within England's squad. It was also the first time in his career that he had felt "self-conscious" about his weight.

Sibley and the rest of the players had just finished a net session in Colombo in the early stages of a tour that would eventually be cut short because of COVID-19. By his own admission, the 24 year-old was "absolutely spent" and yet three of England's most senior players, who had gone through the same session, were not done. Joe Root, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes went running. "That was a real eye opener, " Sibley said.

"For the first time in my career I felt a little bit self-conscious about my physique and my weight, just seeing how fit some of the senior guys are and how impressive they are in training. I just remember sitting on the plane thinking I need to do something, especially during lockdown when we couldn't improve anything cricket-related. It was an opportunity for me to improve that side of my game."

Four months later and Sibley is about 12kg lighter although social distancing has meant that the usual skin fold testing has not yet been possible so the exact loss is yet to be calculated. What is not in doubt, however, is that Sibley is the leanest and fittest he has ever been.

Alongside his fitness sessions, Sibley has made significant changes to his diet in conjunction with ECB nutritionist Emma Gardner. A self-confessed lover of the odd treat or two, he has had time during lockdown to prepare good food and work with Gardner on understanding what to eat and when. The result has been a significant fall in weight. "It's great to be a bit more disciplined," he said. "It's been tough, but it's good to feel the benefits now."

There had been comments from coaches before but it was the sight of Root, Stokes and Buttler doing extra laps in Colombo that finally pressed the message home. And it is yet another example of the influence Stokes and Buttler in particular have had in raising the fitness standards of this England squad, an influence which began in earnest during the 2018 tour to Sri Lanka and which other players, such as Moeen Ali, have spoken about previously.

"I've had taps on the shoulder before and haven't really done anything about it," Sibley admits. "I think it was overdue having that wake up call and a good lesson for me, regardless of whether it leads to runs. I've always been someone who hasn't necessarily been the fittest in the squad and I've always, whether at Surrey or Warwickshire, been coasting in that aspect. I have always prided myself in training really hard on my batting but maybe that [fitness] side has not been something I have done to the best of my ability."

Sibley, who made a maiden Test hundred in Cape Town in January, says he has "never felt tired batting" and that the drop in weight is "not necessarily going to improve my batting". It is true that he already has a proven ability to bat for long periods - he faced the most deliveries in Division One of the Championship last year - but increased stamina and concentration, thus potentially enabling him to stay at the crease longer, is clearly not going to do him, or England, any harm.

"It might help my agility in the field and being a better fielder," he added. "And fewer niggles. Carrying less weight might keep me on the park for longer. If I'd done nothing during lockdown I think I'd have got to here and thought 'I haven't quite ticked every box'. But I feel I've trained hard and I'm ready for the series. Success or failure, I feel like I've left no stone unturned. I didn't want to leave any box unticked in getting myself ready for this series."

Ahead of the West Indies series, preparation stepped up a notch for England's players last week during the three-day intra squad warm-up match at the Ageas Bowl. It was interesting that Team Buttler's bowlers attacked Sibley with short of a length deliveries angled into his ribs with catchers at leg-gully and slip. It is a perceived area of weakness given Sibley tends to look to play those sort of deliveries behind square on the leg side. South Africa tested him out there at the start of the year.

There was no softly, softly approach in Southampton. Sibley was targeted there again and in the first innings he was caught by Buttler down the leg-side, fencing at a rising delivery from Jofra Archer, in a perfect illustration of what that sort of attack is designed to achieve. Sibley felt he coped better with the approach in the second innings, making 38 from 72 deliveries, but he is under no illusions that the West Indies will test him there over the next three Tests.

"I've scored a lot of runs in county cricket with that shot," he said. "That's the great thing about Test cricket - I was talking to [Graham] Thorpey and [Rory] Burnsy the other day, who I talk to a lot about batting, and we were saying that's the best thing about Test cricket, you've always got new challenges and suddenly my strength is being turned into a way to get me out.

"That's just another challenge for me to overcome. You've got to find ways to deal with it. It was interesting in the practise match that they went with that as well so it was a good experience. In the second innings I dealt with it a bit better."

Might the pull shot be an option? "I've played the pull shot since a young age, but I must say I South Africa, with the bouncy wickets, I didn't feel in control of that, so I chose to get out of the way of the ball," he said. "But it's a case in that area - around the nipple to hip - of being in control. Choosing when to play and when not to play and choosing the most low risk options. It's going to be a case of me managing that and those risks."