Les Ames, 'Hopper' Levett, Godfrey Evans, Alan Knott, Geraint Jones and now, Sam Billings. It is not fanciful to mention his name in such illustrious Kentish company, for the manner in which he hits the ball and keeps wicket in helmet and sunglasses is not only that of a cricketer of the modern era, but a highly talented one. In another sense, the numerous sports at which he excels, he is a throwback to the age of the all-round games player.
Billings is a good enough footballer to have been offered a trial by Tottenham after scoring a hat-trick against their academy side. He declined only because he had to go on an U-14 South of England cricket tour of Barbados. He played tennis at county level. He is a sufficiently talented squash player to have been challenged to a match by Andy Flower. He plays racquets, which hones his reflexes, to a high standard, and golf with Jones. He gave up rugby only because he was knocked out when spear-tackled in a schools match and woke up in an infirmary.
Shades, then, of AB de Villiers. Billings' cricket coaches, of course, did not like the idea of him continuing to play rugby and football. Kent knew they had a talent in their midst and the days of Stuart Leary playing county cricket at Canterbury in the summer and turning out for Charlton Athletic in the winter were long in the past. It is not as if there was ever much prospect of Billings not making the grade as a cricketer, either. He is on England Lions' tour of South Africa as one to watch and, indeed, one to be promoted. Pretty soon.
Last year, Billings topped the Royal London Cup averages. He made an unbeaten 135 off 58 balls against Somerset at Taunton, an innings which so impressed Marcus Trescothick, who has seen some superlative innings on that ground, that he talked about Billings 'annihilating' his bowlers. It came as no surprise when he was named in England's provisional 30-man World Cup squad. Kent rated him so highly that they allowed Jones, an Ashes-winning wicketkeeper, to leave the club, arguably before his time was up. Billings reacted by emphasising that he is not merely a one-day cricketer, making a half century in each of the last five first-class matches of last season.
Jones, who has moved on to Gloucestershire, did not take umbrage. "Geraint has helped me massively and is an absolutely cracking bloke. The situation I was in with him was the same when he took over from Paul Nixon in the Kent side. We keep in touch." Jones has given him some specialist help and Billings also praises the coaching he has received from Simon Willis "from the academy all the way up."
Billings' sporting talent derives from his grandfather, Ron, a racquets champion at Queen's Club in west London, and a developer who owned his own football ground near Brands Hatch. Bobby Moore, no less, came down to switch on the newly installed floodlights. Corinthian FC still play there, their youth set-up a thriving one. Billings was representing the club when he scored his hat-trick against Spurs - "a free kick, a penalty and a header," as he recalled. "I would love to be able to still play football." Ron Billings died not long after Sam was born, but the family, whose farm in north Kent is called 'Gay Dawn,' are still involved in property. This year, Billings will move away from his parents, buying a home of his own near the St Lawrence ground.
Cricket proved to be Billings' stronger suit. At prep school he played against Sam Northeast, who was to become a Kent colleague and good friend. At Haileybury, his talent was quite evident. Representing Kent at junior county level, he became a close friend of Adam Riley, the tall offspinner who has also been on the Lions' tour and who will be joining him in representing MCC in the curtain raiser to the new season against Yorkshire in Abu Dhabi.
"Adam stays level headed. He is quite quiet, whereas I am the complete opposite. I am the most competitive man alive." Now 23, Billings is friendly, self assured and, according to the Lions' management, mixes well. Unlike the England captain, he has not dropped his public school accent: he can laugh off friendly jibes from team-mates about racquets being a posh boy's sport. Flower and Graham Thorpe have been coaching him on this trip. "More on the mental side, although obviously there are things to tinker with in terms of technique. Jonathan Trot has been very open and has taught me how to focus on making chunks of runs at a time. It really keeps me switched on," he said.
There were times last year when, as with the great Knott, he appeared to be coming in too low down Kent's order. He sees his future, ideally, as a No. 5 batsman in a Kent side which he feels is now strong enough to escape Division Two cricket. "The ball is slightly older and I am not batting with the tail. But I am playing a role in which the tempo of the game is set for me - it suits my attacking instincts."
In terms of wicketkeeping, he prefers to stand up to brisk medium pace, his eyes protected by helmet or sun glasses. "I do so to Darren Stevens and did when Matt Coles was playing for Kent. I feel I am in the game. James Foster, arguably the best wicketkeeper in the world, stands up to Graham Napier, and that does set a high standard."
Such is Billings' innate talent that it would be well worth Kent's arranging for him to travel to Cyprus to meet, for the first time, one A.P. E. Knott. A finishing school indeed.