Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98
Sam Billings uses one word more than any other over the course of a 30-minute Zoom call, looking forward to a period of his life that he knows could define his career: perspective.
After missing out on the chance to break into England's 50-over World Cup squad in 2019 through injury, Billings is targeting the T20 version of the competition this year as a chance to make amends. He is aware his performances in the upcoming white-ball series - five T20Is and three ODIs - in India, and in the IPL which follows, will either enhance or hinder his case for a spot in the squad.
The first challenge is one that is all too familiar to him: how to get into the XI. For a man turning 30 in June, Billings' appearances have been surprisingly sparse. Dom Sibley, Dan Lawrence and Sam Curran have all played more first-class games than him despite being several years younger, while he has only batted 18 times in ODIs, six years after his debut. Such is life on the fringes of the international set-up.
When Billings made his first international hundred last year, a fluent 118 against a full-strength Australia at Old Trafford, he finally looked like he was ready to lock down a spot in England's middle order. Asked exactly that post-match, he was candid in his assessment: "Ben Stokes isn't here and I don't think, however many runs I get, that I'll keep that spot," he said.
"I thought, 'I don't know how many [runs] I need to get, but I'm just seat-warming for the time being,'" he recalls. "Since my injury, in terms of perspective, I've gained that through a really bad experience, and can deal with disappointment and bad runs far more easily.
"I've gained so much more confidence in my own game over the last two years, in terms of doing it more consistently. I've still got the highest score ever by a No. 6 in T20I cricket [second-highest; the record was broken by Belgium's Shaheryar Butt in 2020], I've got one of the fastest fifties in T20 cricket for England, so I've done it sporadically. It's been the consistency that has let me down, with in-and-out team selection.
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"It is tough. It's a really tough part of the game. But I think as a youngster coming into that side, you then take being dropped a lot harder. Through that experience, I've been able to mentally be in a really good place and be ready for that opportunity, whereas in the past I've put way too much pressure on myself, not enjoyed it, and it really gets to you."
Since his injury, Billings has had an up-and-down time of it with England - or more accurately, down, then up. He was named vice-captain for the T20I series in New Zealand at the end of 2019, but fluffed his lines auditioning for the finishing role with 34 runs off as many balls across five innings and was left out for the white-ball leg of the South Africa tour in early 2020.
That led him to withdraw from franchise cricket for the rest of the winter in a bid to refresh himself ahead of the home summer - though his break ended up being longer than planned with the UK in lockdown. Handed an unexpected opportunity due to Joe Denly's back spasm ahead of the first ODI of the English season, Billings made 132 runs for once out in the series against Ireland - enough for him to keep his place for the Australia series, even with multi-format players available once again.
His first international hundred was an obvious highlight, albeit in a losing cause, and having missed the chance to further his claims in South Africa after the ODI series was postponed at the last minute, he performed creditably in the Big Bash for Sydney Thunder, with 260 runs in ten innings and a strike rate of 142.85 from the middle order.
"Last year was the best year for me in an England shirt by a mile, because of that consistency," Billings says. "It started against Ireland and I managed to maintain that. That's the challenge. I'm really excited for the next few months and the opportunities ahead with Delhi at the IPL afterwards as well. I'm in as good a place as I can be to challenge for a spot in the side, and I just want to make a spot my own.
"In what's been a horrendous time for everyone, how lucky am I to have that in front of me and to look forward to? That's the mindset I'm going in with. If I play, brilliant, and I'm in a great place to do that. If I don't, I've got a fantastic opportunity to learn and grow and be part of this. There are a lot of people stuck at home during lockdown who would like to be in my position. I think it's a really good, healthy perspective to have."
Billings seems likely to start the T20I series on the bench, but his form over the last year or so has ensured that he will be the first man England turn to if they decide they need reinforcements at No. 5 or 6, the spots currently occupied by Stokes and Eoin Morgan.
Three main features of Billings' game stand out: clean striking while playing orthodox shots; innovative sweeps, reverses and paddles; and an ability to tick over in the middle overs, evidenced by the lowest dot-ball percentage against spin (26.7%) in all T20 cricket since the last World Cup in 2016. It is the third of those that makes him stand out from England's pack in Indian conditions.
"That's one of my strengths, and one of those roles that I really enjoy," Billings explains. "It's a role that people just expect batsmen to do really well, but if you do it badly, everyone rages about it and says, 'What's going on in the middle overs against spin?' The challenge for me now is to move it on even further.
"You look at Eoin Morgan's numbers over the last few years and they've been absolutely phenomenal. The way he has transformed his game and kept on moving [it] forward is something I really want to emulate and continue. I just want to be tricky to bowl at.
"If I can put pressure on [India's bowlers] and rotate spin like I do, again, that's giving myself the best chance to perform. I know it's going to be a test because they're world-class performers - [India are] one of the best teams in their home conditions. It's going to be tough, but it's a really exciting challenge that I'm looking forward to."
After this series, Billings will stay in India for the IPL - he was signed by the Delhi Capitals in last month's auction. Involvement in the competition has been a blessing and a curse for Billings: he has never attracted a life-changing bid. His Rs 2 crore (US$270,000 approximately) contract for 2021 is twice his previous-highest salary, and he has played only 22 times in his four seasons, but he says he has learned plenty from the format's top coaches and team-mates.
His participation has split opinion at Kent, too, with some members unhappy at the prospect of the man who became club captain in 2018 missing the first two months of the county season yet again.
Billings recalls the first time he saw Rishabh Pant in the Delhi Daredevils nets
"I had a very honest conversation with Kent - with Paul Downton [director of cricket] and Walks [Matt Walker, head coach] - and they completely backed me, 100%. After missing out on a World Cup, I've got the bit between my teeth to make up for lost time and build upon the momentum that I built last year. That is my focus: I want to be in a winning World Cup team, no doubt about it.
"You look at the squad that Delhi have, and especially the overseas options: you could go with any combination and it would be a successful one. The competition for places is phenomenal: they obviously got to the final last year, so game time might be limited, but it comes back to the point of preparing for a World Cup and giving myself the best chance in these conditions to prepare for that."
Delhi's most-used overseas combination last season involved two fast bowlers, Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje; an allrounder, Marcus Stoinis; and Shimron Hetmyer in the middle order. If they go with a similar balance, then Billings is likely to be competing for Hetmyer's role, with Steven Smith also pushing for selection.
He is particularly excited by the prospect of working with Ricky Ponting - "a hero growing up… he does not miss a trick" - and linking up with India's three star performers in their recent Test series win against England: Rishabh Pant, Axar Patel and R Ashwin.
"Facing those two spinners in the nets is one of the great things about the IPL, and other franchise competitions," he explains. "[If] you face these guys day in, day out in testing conditions, you're going to get better - it's impossible not to. That's a huge plus point… I'll be writing a few notes about a few different cricketers that I see about.
"Fingers crossed, it'll be perfect preparation. It's really exciting, the cricket coming up. I like to work on the next thing and really focus my energy on this series before we move onto the next one, but big picture for me, the strategy was always to give myself the best chance of being selected in the World Cup at the end of the year."