Liam Livingstone makes virtue of versatility in pitch for England World Cup role
Low-key but impressive performances in first two T20Is enhance his claims to squad berth
Teams can take a squad of 33 players to cover 15 starting positions in rugby's next World Cup, and 23 for 11 spots in football's, but cricket diverges from the norm. England will take a 15-man squad to the T20 World Cup this winter - albeit with the possibility of a couple of reserves as a Covid precaution - and as a result, the ability of back-up players to cover a range of roles is crucial. With that in mind, Liam Livingstone has done his chances of inclusion no harm at all in the first two games of their T20I series against Sri Lanka in Cardiff. An innings of 29 not out off 26 balls and four tight overs of liquorice-all-sort spin that have cost 19 runs do not demand retention in themselves, but have demonstrated the flexibility that Livingstone would add to a touring party as a utility player. "It's something that I pride myself on, being as versatile as I can," he said after the second T20I, in which he won the match award after steering England home from No. 6. "It's something that's rolled into my bowling as well, trying to bowl both legspin and offspin to give people different options [and] it's the same with my batting, trying to make myself a player who can bat all the way from No. 1 to No. 8." While he has made a reputation for himself as a power-hitter who deals in sixes - in last year's Big Bash, he scored a higher percentages of his runs in sixes (39.4%) than anyone else in the top 25 run-scorers - Livingstone's innings on Thursday night demonstrated his willingness to adapt, with a single ramped six standing out alongside a series of clips and pushes into gaps to suit the situation and build a partnership with Sam Billings. Four years on from a pair of frenetic innings in his first two T20Is, he looked a different player. Importantly, given England's logjam of top-three options, it also demonstrated an ability to bat in the middle order. Twenty-five of Livingstone's last 26 innings in domestic T20 cricket for Lancashire and Perth Scorchers have come as an opener, with Jos Buttler even moving down to No. 4 in order to accommodate him at the top in this year's T20 Blast, but there is little chance of him batting there in an England shirt.
While he will have limited opportunity to do so before the start of the World Cup, Livingstone should consider shuffling down the order for one of his clubs if he can - potentially for Birmingham Phoenix in the Hundred - in order to gain more experience in the role, though batting in the middle order for Peshawar Zalmi and Cape Town Blitz two winters ago meant he had something to lean back on.
"I batted at No. 4 and 5 in the PSL and in the South African T20 [MSL]," he said. "I guess that's the reason I go away and play in these competitions: trying to get experience of batting in different roles, which has obviously helped me coming into an England side, batting in a position I'm not really used to."
But it is with the ball that Livingstone is particularly multi-talented, as he has demonstrated in this series. He generally bowls legbreaks to right-handers and offbreaks to left-handers, and while not a prodigious turner of the ball, he gets enough spin both ways to keep batters guessing and forcing them to watch him carefully out of the hand.
"It's certainly advantageous isn't it?" Buttler said after Wednesday night's game. "It's a fantastic skill to have, to be able to bowl offspin and legspin to international standard. We will potentially see that come into the game more and more. He's an exciting package, a great guy to have in your squad and your XI."
Livingstone is not the finished article with the ball. Two of the three most expensive overs of his T20 career have come at crunch moments, confirming Lancashire's exits in the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the last two Blast seasons when Ravi Bopara and Dan Christian took him down, but he insisted that those experiences have been beneficial in the long run.
"[My bowling] has always been well-regarded at Lancashire," he said. "I've obviously had a couple of tough moments with it over the last couple of years, but they are the moments that have made me a better bowler. It's something I've worked hard on for this sort of opportunity, to push my way into a team as someone that can offer something in all three facets of the game."
As an excellent outfielder too, Livingstone's case for inclusion in the World Cup squad is strong: even if he is unlikely to start once Ben Stokes returns from injury, the fact he offers some overs as a second - or even third - spinner, can cover a number of batting roles and is a good option to come on as a substitute fielder mean that he has quickly become England's Mr Versatile.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98