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Analysis

Liam Livingstone's Test selection one of inherent contradiction

A cricketer whose stock has risen through indulging impulses and unpredictability now has to temper both

Liam Livingstone during a nets session at Trent Bridge  •  PA Images via Getty Images

Liam Livingstone during a nets session at Trent Bridge  •  PA Images via Getty Images

It is hard not to regard the selection of Liam Livingstone in England's Test squad to tour Pakistan as one of inherent contradiction.
A destructive batter by trade, whose first call-up for the New Zealand Tests of 2018 was seen as an antidote to the lack of counter-punch in the Ashes earlier that winter, has got over the line for a second call-up four years on due to his learnings as a holding spinner. A cricketer with just eight first-class appearances since the start of 2020 is being entrusted to tour a part of the world that scrutinises red-ball fundamentals.
In that same period, in which he averages 12.66 with the bat from 114 runs and has taken nine wickets at 37.77, he has gained global repute in the shortest formats by trying hit every ball out of the park and offering a Russian roulette mix of offbreaks and legspin. A cricketer whose stock has risen through indulging impulses and unpredictability now has to temper both.
And yet, the inclusion of a 29-year-old who hasn't played with a red ball in 2022 - not to mention one who is still trying to shake off an ankle injury ahead of the T20 World Cup - does make sense. Granted, it might require a bit of mental squinting, but the circumstances around him have certainly aligned in favour of the Lancashire batting allrounder who, at the time of writing, boasts first-class averages of 38 and 36 with bat and ball.
With Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid ending their "will they, won't they" with the Test format, and Dom Bess and Matt Parkinson out of favour and Liam Dawson seemingly invisible to the selection panel, the spin stocks are lacking. Not to mention Pakistan, while in Asia, isn't exactly a spin paradise. Though the Pakistan Cricket Board may look at that visiting squad and their one full-time spinner and tweak their decks, exploiting the visitors' perceived weakness against the turning ball works against maximising their own pace strengths.
Livingstone has always retained a desire to play Test cricket, even if by his own admission he'd need "700 days in the year" to put a case forward alongside his limited-overs schedule. Carl Crowe, one of England's scouts who has worked with Livingstone as a spin-bowling coach, refers to him as a "cricket nuffy" because of how much he consumes all codes of the game, and those who have worked alongside him have no fears for him at Test level, both on technical ability or personality.
There was a sense this pick was on the cards following Tuesday's announcement of ECB central contracts. Despite just one half-century in 16 limited overs innings last summer, Livingstone was awarded one of the 18 full-time deals for the 2022-23 season. A significant upgrade in status and pay on the incremental deal he held for the previous cycle.
Going by previous winters, this had not been coming. He was omitted from the Lions squad that toured Australia alongside the 2021-22 Ashes campaign and had previously forgone the opportunity to do that same Lions tour back in 2019-20 because of T20 commitments in the Mzansi Super League, Big Bash League and Pakistan Super League. That felt as much to do about forcing a path into the national white-ball teams as it did to make some sizeable dough. Thus, like mini-disc players and Google Hangouts, "Liam Livingstone, Test cricketer" was over just as it had begun.
Not so under the new regime, and perhaps it speaks to a change of tact from the ECB and their awarding of a full deal to Livingstone that they are reacting to the rise in franchise opportunities for their personnel. It's worth noting Livingstone was the first pick in the BBL's inaugural draft for this upcoming season and was selected for the SA20. Though the ECB now have more jurisdiction over his movements, the decision to fulfil those contracts with Melbourne Renegades and MI Cape Town will be down to him. As it stands, he is now due to miss the start and end of the BBL season.
At the other end of that spectrum is Sam Billings, who made two appearances last summer as England's spare Test wicketkeeper. ESPNcricinfo understands head coach Brendon McCullum called Billings on Tuesday to ask if he would be up for reprising the role this winter at the expense of his BBL contract with Brisbane Heat. In the end, the pair decided the best course of action was for Billings, 31, to play cricket rather than carry drinks. In the event of an untimely injury to Ben Foakes, Billings could fly out as an emergency replacement. At present, Ollie Pope and Ben Duckett are the only alternative keeping options in the squad.
Even in the new era of the men's Test side under Rob Key's directorship, McCullum's watch and Ben Stokes' captaincy, those longer in the tooth at the ECB were able to relay their high opinions of Livingstone. Opinions that, granted, were formed many years ago, most notably in 2017 when he scored four centuries, including two in a match for the Lions against Sri Lanka A. The calibre of his shots and aura at the crease drew comparisons to Kevin Pietersen. Only one of Livingstone's seven career centuries (114 against Leicestershire in June 2019) has come since.
Livingstone remains a provocative entity, thriving in the battle and commanding eyes, whether wide or narrowed in his direction. If he wasn't breaking into a near-impenetrable white-ball set-up with England's fastest ever T20I century or carrying the first edition of the Hundred on his back, he was enamouring himself to his peers, such as Stokes, for having that dog in him.
Quite how that translates into the longest format remains to be seen. For the longest time, the thought of him in Test cricket has been too powerful a concept to be dulled by conventional "numbers" or "wisdom". Now we are a little closer to seeing if that concept works in reality.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo