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Sam Billings primed to seize his chance after life on England's fringes

Buttler injury opens door to extended run in ODI squad after luckless tour of India

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Sam Billings helped the rebuilding effort, England vs Sri Lanka, 2nd T20I, Cardiff, June 24, 2021

Sam Billings helped the rebuilding effort  •  AFP/Getty Images

At the start of March, Sam Billings was full of positivity about an upcoming three-match period that could have locked him into England's T20 World Cup squad: he had not been given an opportunity in their T20I series in India, but had expected to play all three of the ODIs that followed before trying to force his way into the Delhi Capitals team in the IPL. "It's really exciting," he said at the time. "The strategy was always to give myself the best chance of being selected in the World Cup."
But things have not gone to plan. Billings suffered a shoulder injury diving on the boundary in the first ODI, ruling him out of the next two games, and after starting the IPL on Delhi's bench, was in line to make his first appearance of the season against Kolkata Knight Riders but watched as the worsening Covid-19 situation caused the tournament to be postponed. That meant a flight home to the UK and 10 days of self-isolation in a hotel room, "watching the planes fly over [Heathrow] Terminal Five".
Desperate to get onto the pitch, he was the first English IPL player back in the County Championship, playing straight after his quarantine period was complete, before spending three weeks as a back-up wicketkeeper in the Test squad - dropping a tough catch at fine leg when he got onto the pitch as a sub fielder - and playing three Blast games for Kent, taking his social-media trolls to task after an innings of 30 off 30 balls on a tough Cardiff pitch proved to be match-winning.
"It's just nice to be playing, full stop," he said on Friday morning, before England's T20I squad travelled from Cardiff to the Ageas Bowl. "I think [last night] was my fourth innings of the summer and my fifth since January. It's been an experience, definitely, to say the least.
"It has been deflating at times, not playing any cricket and missing out on all fronts, really. It's kind of been a close shave in all formats at the moment and it was just nice to be back out there playing last night: it's a lot better than running the drinks."
In that light, Billings' innings of 24 off 29 balls was more important than the numbers suggest. He put on 54 off 48 balls with Liam Livingstone for the fifth wicket, and while he chopped on against Wanindu Hasaranga with 13 runs required, their stand had secured the game after a nervous stumble to 36 for 4 in the run chase.
Specifically, Billings highlighted the fact that, while in years gone by, he might have looked to play some shots and "make a statement", he instead focused only on taking the game deep and nudging ones and twos to build a partnership on a turgid pitch.
"Last night was really pleasing from my point of view," he said. "In the past I would have tried even harder to make a bit more of a statement as opposed to just getting the job done. It was a real shame to get out but to get stuck in and play the role that was needed for the team: it wasn't pretty from Liam and I at times but ultimately it's about getting the side over the line.
"In the past, I've put way too much pressure on myself, but I think last year for me was a huge turning point. I put myself under a lot of pressure, of course, when I got that opportunity initially, but the consistent run of games against very good attacks in Australia and Pakistan really give me confidence just to back my own game, and it was a consistency more for me that was really pleasing last year.
"[Last night] was my fourth game in about six months so for me the pressure was actually off a little bit in that I just concentrated on doing the basics really well. When you haven't played in a while, you just strip it right back and concentrate on those kind of things. And I'm 30 now - I'm no spring chicken anymore - so I've got a bit of experience behind me. The age thing definitely helps in giving you some perspective."
Billings was likely to continue in the middle order during the ODI series against Sri Lanka regardless, but Jos Buttler's injury - confirmed on Friday to be a calf tear, which had opened up a spot for Billings in the second T20I - effectively locks him in as a middle-order batter. While Ben Stokes is certain to come back into the side when fully fit, Billings will have an opportunity to build on an impressive run last summer against Ireland and Australia, which included his first international hundred, and force some tricky selection decisions further down the line.
"In terms of ODIs, I had a really good summer last year and averaged 83 [78.75] throughout that summer in that format so I would be pretty disappointed if I didn't get a gig. But this team is a very hard one to get into to.
"[England] have two of the best white-ball batsmen and wicketkeepers in the world [in Buttler and Jonny Bairstow] but at the end of the day, you never know with injuries. You have just got to try and offer as much as you can to any side you go into. The more options you can give any side, it definitely helps your case; I'm working on the offspin as we speak…"

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98