Sam Billings: 'Don't want to be pigeonholed as a white-ball player. I'm better than that'

The reinvention has begun for the wicketkeeper-batsman, who has declared his Test ambitions

Valkerie Baynes
Valkerie Baynes
Sam Billings during a net session at Bert Sutcliffe Oval, Lincoln, New Zealand, October 26, 2019

Sam Billings during a net session at Bert Sutcliffe Oval in New Zealand  •  Getty Images

Sam Billings could look back on 2019 as a dreadful year and, sometimes, he does. But he also sees it as the year he had a rare chance to reinvent himself as a cricketer who can break free of the white-ball-specialist mould and into the England Test side.
For someone who has found himself typecast as a limited-overs player through, he says, no one's fault but his own, Billings believes he has much more to offer.
It was a belief born - or perhaps reawakened - when, at the end of a season in which a shoulder injury destroyed any hopes he had of playing in England's triumphant 50-over World Cup campaign, he was left with just a handful of matches for Kent in the T20 Blast and the same at the back end of the Championship to salvage something from the year.
He did, juggling the demands of keeping and captaincy to score three hundreds in consecutive Championship innings, including two in a match against Yorkshire at Headingley, and it ignited a greater ambition.
"That is definitely a big turning point in my mindset, and my career, I suppose," Billings tells ESPNcricinfo. "I want to play Test cricket. That is a big goal of mine.
"Last year was, obviously, a tough year for me in terms of my shoulder and missing the World Cup. I came back initially and going straight into the T20 didn't quite play as well as I would have liked and the team, we didn't play as well as we would have liked.
"But to kind of bounce back and show, prove to myself really more than anything in terms of the Championship stuff, that I have got the game and the mentality to be able to succeed in that format, not only at first-class level but also a level above, for me that was a huge positive out of last year."
In 2018, Billings enjoyed his best Blast season, averaging 53.14 with a strike rate of 144.74. He backed that up with his most eye-catching England innings to date, 87 off just 47 balls in a T20I Man-of-the-Match performance against West Indies in St Kitts on the 2018-19 tour. He had been selected for England's ODI against Ireland in the lead-up to the World Cup before injury struck.
"I think there are opportunities in the Test team as well, especially as a batter and also in the wicketkeeping position. I find that really exciting"
After finishing what turned out to be his last stint with Chennai Super Kings in the IPL, Billings dislocated his shoulder diving to stop the ball in his first match back for his county, a Royal London Cup fixture against Glamorgan in April. While he had not been included in England's initial 15-man World Cup squad, he was a likely batting reserve - but surgery put an end to that.
His return to the England fold hit a setback also. Travelling to New Zealand in November as Eoin Morgan's deputy, Billings managed just 34 runs in five T20 innings, although that included three not-outs, and was subsequently left out of the white-ball touring party headed to South Africa, an omission he says was "really tough to take".
The returns of Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Joe Denly - his county vice-captain - as well as wicketkeepers Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow squeezed him out. But clear communication from Morgan left Billings in no doubt about what he needed to do.
"The feedback is, I'm competing with Joe and Moeen, I suppose, for those middle-order, engineroom slots," Billings says. "Pretty simple really.
"That's what I liked about Morgs, he just was honest with me and absolutely said, 'It's not definite, these things do change and can change', it's just that's the decision that was made."
Now back in the reckoning as part of a 55-man England training group preparing for a proposed international summer of behind-closed-doors fixtures, Billings is in as good a place as any to make his case for a place at the T20 World Cup, which is scheduled to start in Australia in October but risks being postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While he will have a white-ball brief within that extended squad, Billings doesn't believe that limited-overs cricket is all there is for him, and he is hoping for a chance to press his claims for a Test debut. It is a chance which largely hinges on there being a Championship this year but, considering Buttler and Bairstow have both found themselves under pressure to keep the gloves (albeit primarily from Ben Foakes), Billings' designs on that missing England cap are understandable.
"I think there are opportunities in the Test team as well, especially as a batter and also in the wicketkeeping position," Billings says. "I find that really exciting. I don't want to just be pigeon-holed as a white-ball player. I'm better than that."
Having made his England debut in an ODI against New Zealand at Edgbaston in June 2015, playing his first T20I against the same opposition two weeks later, Billings has gained vast experience in T20 franchise leagues around the world. He spent two seasons with Delhi Daredevils before joining Chennai, and played for Sydney Sixers in the BBL.
Billings is so keen to break free from his limited-overs billing, that when Chennai did not offer him another deal for the now-postponed 2020 IPL, he decided against trying his luck elsewhere. He also declined an offer to travel to Australia over the winter with England Lions, reasoning he had been there and done that with the Lions and wanting to set about securing a spot in the senior ranks.
"There's no one else to blame apart from me really for that," Billings said of being seen as a white-ball specialist. "I played four IPLs and you're not going to turn down an opportunity like that as a young player in terms of a chance to develop - especially as there was no financial gain in the first two years. For me I saw it purely as an opportunity as I went for base price to Delhi.
"Obviously four-day cricket had to take a back seat at that point in time and I just didn't play anywhere near enough cricket. That's where my mindset has changed a little bit.
"The back end of last year proved to myself more than anyone that I can be more than just an average first-class cricketer or quite a good first-class cricketer. That can be as strong a format as any. But it was only when I really proved it to myself last year that that came back to the forefront of my mind."