Bold, brash and unashamedly modern, Kent keeper-batsman Sam Billings embodies the new way for English cricketers. He speaks to Jo Harman about his determination to make an England ODI spot his own, the ‘IPL Experience’ and where cricket goes next.
It’s four years since Sam Billings announced himself by scoring a run-a-ball half-century in a televised one-day match for Kent against Warwickshire. His dexterity and range of strokes led Michael Atherton to tip him as an international player in the making, the former England skipper even suggesting the selectors should chance their arm and pick him immediately. While his Kent teammates Sam Northeast and Daniel Bell-Drummond had been identified as prodigious talents at an early age, Billings had seemingly come from nowhere.
“I’m a late developer,” Billings tells AOC as we sit in the sunshine outside the Lime Tree Café at the pretty St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury. “Rob Key said to me the other day when we were playing golf: ‘You were rubbish as a kid!’ Everyone knew about DBD [Bell-Drummond], everyone knew about Sam Northeast, and I was just this wiry little kid who turned up to practice and asked for a hit at the end of the day. He tells the story of when I went to Antigua on pre-season with the first-team squad. We had a practice game, Charlie Shreck was bowling bumpers at me and I smacked a fifty and all of a sudden Keysy said he realised there was something to work with.”
Billings had to bide his time though, and when no offer of a professional contract was forthcoming, he decided his best chance was through the MCC University system at Loughborough. He describes it as the best thing he’s ever done. “Growing up I was definitely a keeper first and a batter second. I’d kept for England all the way through the age groups – Jos [Buttler] played as a batter – but I wasn’t good enough to get a full county contract when I finished school. During my first year at Loughborough we had a camp for the England under 19s. All the boys were staying in the ECB lodges and I just stayed in my halls. I was one of only a few that didn’t have a contract and I felt a bit on the periphery. It was only at Loughborough that I got an opportunity at the top of the order. My [first-class] debut was against Northants at Loughborough and I got a hundred, so Kent then knew I was good enough to play at this level.”
A year later Billings was established in Kent’s limited-overs teams and he followed up that eye-catching performance in front of the Sky cameras by smashing 143 from 113 deliveries against Derbyshire – the highest one-day score by a Kent batsman at Canterbury. In the time since he has developed a reputation as one of the cleanest and most innovative ball-strikers in the English game and he made his ODI and T20I debuts in 2015. He also took part in the inaugural Pakistan Super League earlier this year, turning out for tournament winners Islamabad United, before representing Delhi Daredevils at the IPL.
“I just saw it as a huge opportunity,” he says of his decision to put himself forward for the IPL auction. “Andrew Strauss has encouraged as many of us as possible to go and play in franchise tournaments around the world. He sees it as an opportunity to improve as individuals and in the long run that’s going to benefit English cricket as well. Even when you’re not playing you learn just as much as when you are. You’ve just got to soak it all up because it is a different world out there.
“I was actually naïve going into it because I thought it was just cricket, there was training and you got plenty of time in between games. But there was something on every day! If you’re not training you’re doing photoshoots, you’re singing in adverts, you’re doing all sorts for the sponsors. I was quite lucky actually. They wanted the big guys’ faces on adverts and we had Brathwaite, Morris, Zaheer Khan, JP Duminy, Quinton de Kock. They didn’t have a clue who I was! They thought I was the physio.”
Billings had made his peace with the fact that in such a star-studded roster he might not get a game but midway through the tournament he got his opportunity against Kolkata Knight Riders. “I was so nervous! The boys were taking the mickey out of me in the team meeting. I’m sitting next to the big man, Carlos Brathwaite, and when my name’s read out all the lads started clapping, and then Carlos looked at me and burst out laughing. I had these massive sweat patches, just from the nerves. I was wearing a grey t-shirt – not a good option! He found it hilarious. It was only because you care so much and you’re wanting to show the world what you can do. I think that’s how you’ve got to look at it: it’s a great opportunity as opposed to shying away from it.”
The nerves didn’t show as Billings scored 54 from 34 balls in a Delhi victory. He followed that with a quick-fire 24 in his next innings and finished the campaign with five matches under his belt. “Hopefully if I get retained next year people now know what I can do. There’s not much more I could have done. It was a sensational, surreal experience. It was as much a life experience as a cricketing experience.”
So should we be trying to replicate that experience in England with our own city-based franchise model? “Franchise cricket was fantastic but it’s a different beast over here,” says Billings. “You’ve got the county system, which is so entrenched. The main thing from a player’s point of view is that we have to play T20 in a block. We’ve had two spells this season where we’ve played six days out of eight in three different formats. That’s not good for us as players: trying to survive in red-ball cricket and then having to try and whack it out of the park on a Friday evening. As players we don’t know what’s going on. We just load our cars up and have all the kit there in case it’s T20 or whatever! But also as a fan, it’s so hard to track a competition or team, or how a particular player’s going.”
Billings isn’t afraid to speak his mind on a number of subjects and admits he was bitterly disappointed to miss out on England’s ODI squad for the recent series against Sri Lanka. He was selected for the one-off T20I but feels ready for a run in the 50-over team and the stats bear that out.
“To be totally honest I was disappointed not to be in the ODI squad,” he says. “After James Taylor was unfortunately forced to retire due to his health issues and then Ben Stokes was out injured I thought I might get a go in that middle order. But I think it’s a great strength of English cricket at the moment that we’ve got so many decent players, and I’ve just got to keep scoring runs. I’ve topped the averages in List A cricket for the last two years, at a strike-rate of 140, average of 86 – as long as I keep doing that then hopefully that spot becomes my own.
“List A cricket is definitely my strongest format, simply because I’ve played so much of it from a young age. Where I bat in T20, it’s so volatile as well. It’s the strike-rate that’s the key thing as opposed to the average. For England I just hope that I get a good stint at it. In that Pakistan series [last November] I got a fifty off 23 balls, the quickest fifty from an Englishman in an international T20. If I get a good run at it, I’m sure that given a bit of time I can really go on and produce. J-Roy [Jason Roy] has had a good run at it and now he’s starting to show how good he is. And I’m so happy for him because he is that good. You’re not going to whack it out of the park every day straight away but given time I think you can definitely bed in, for sure.”
It’s a sign of the times that 40 minutes into our interview, we’re yet to discuss Billings’ red-ball cricket. He’s only played 41 first-class matches in his career so far and, remarkably, just three in the last year. He’s batted twice in that time.
Young cricketers coming through in this country still generally proclaim Test cricket to be “the pinnacle”, almost as a reflex. But in the case of a player such as Billings, whose career thus far has been so focused on, and defined by, white-ball cricket, can that really still hold true?
“There’s something special about a Lord’s Test match. That is the purest form of cricket. But I think we’re very lucky to have a sport which has three formats that are so different. There’s not one that’s more important than the other. That’s quite important I think. If you see it from my perspective, don’t get me wrong I would love to play a Test match – putting on that blue Three Lions cap and walking out for a Test match would just be unbelievable – but it’s just different. I feel so far away from Test cricket because I just haven’t played enough four-day cricket in the last year. It’s frustrating because I would love to play it, but it’s just finding a balance. Red-ball and white-ball cricket are two different games nowadays and people have got to realise that. It’s just the way it is.”
Billings talks with real passion about the game’s future and given the opportunities available to him, it’s easy to see why. “I think the game’s moving forward quicker than it ever has done,” he says. “The face of cricket is changing all around the world with different competitions popping up everywhere. We’ve just got to keep growing the game.
“I think that ODI series against New Zealand [last summer] was actually one of the best, not only for the England team but for the whole cricket world because it had two teams just going out there without a care in the world. In the deciding ODI, Morgs [Eoin Morgan] came in against the left-arm spinner and tried to take him down. That’s the way you have to play nowadays, because 300’s not good enough. It’s that mindset of taking it on, whether it’s first ball or last ball: have no regrets and go with the flow. See 400 as a realistic option. It sounds ridiculous, but it is. The last 20 overs, you can get 200. Why not? And then you’ve 30 overs before that. I reckon we will see 500 one day.
“I should have brought one of my bats down. It is ridiculous. It’s actually absurd. They are unbelievable but the game moves forward. It’s going to push the standard higher. Batsmen are now paddle-sweeping fast bowlers. Why limit what you can do? We’ve got one of the best bowlers in the world here [at Kent] in [Kagiso] Rabada, who for a 21-year-old is just phenomenal with the skills he’s got. He’s come up with ways to combat a batsman. You have to. It will have that knock-on effect where the bowlers will catch up again.
“Gareth Andrew [the Hampshire allrounder] has a brilliant thing where he has the ball in his left hand while running up to bowl and as he’s getting into his delivery stride he chucks the ball up with his left hand and catches it with his right. As a batter you’re like: ‘What’s he done?’ Why limit that? That’s great for the game. Gone are the days where you set a field and everyone knows where you’re going to bowl. If you’ve got the field set for a yorker you’re going to double bluff and hit the bloke on the head. If he top edges it for four or six over third-man, then that’s the game. Batsmen gamble, and bowlers have got to gamble as well now.”
Billings’ immediate focus is on winning back a place in England’s ODI squad and cementing his spot in the T20 side. He’s going the right way about it. Given the plum role of No.4 for the England Lions’ one-day tri-series, he followed up a 34-ball 68 in a victory over Sri Lanka A with a career-best 175 against Pakistan A – 139 balls, 21 fours, four sixes (one of those a pull over mid-wicket from a left-handed stance). It was a role that Billings had discussed with England Lions batting coach Graham Thorpe during the winter tour of South Africa. “Thorpey said they wanted me to bat four because if you have that adaptability where you can bat anywhere in the top six or seven, then as a coach or selector it gives you so much more, especially if you can hopefully be one of the better fielders and offer an option with the gloves as well. I’m trying to offer as much as I can to the team in different situations.”
Billings missed out on selection for the forthcoming ODI series against Pakistan but it’s an offer that England’s 50-over team can surely not turn down for much longer. After years of inertia, England have finally woken up to what’s possible in white-ball cricket. Billings has the skill and tenacity to help them achieve it.