For six heady weeks earlier this year Liam Livingstone was the world's must-watch batter. After a period of self-isolation in July, following positive Covid-19 tests in the England camp, Livingstone strode out at Trent Bridge with bleached blond hair and renewed confidence in his six-hitting ability.
There he produced a 42-ball hundred, England's fastest, followed by a purple patch of form that felt like a midsummer fever dream. Between mid-July and the end of August, Livingstone hit 43 sixes - one every 6.3 balls, including one measured at 122 metres off Haris Rauf to clear the new stand at Headingley - in 13 innings for England, Birmingham Phoenix and Lancashire, averaging 52 with a strike rate a shade over 190. Having started the year on the fringes of the England set-up, he inked his name into their starting XI for the first game of this month's T20 World Cup.
"I just rode the wave," Livingstone reflects from Rajasthan Royals' team hotel in the UAE. "I had quarantine when I arrived to sit back and reflect on it. I guess it's been such a good summer for me, but I'm still not where I want to be. I want to keep getting better, keep hitting more sixes and hitting the ball further. I've proved to a few people what I can do, but over the next couple of years I want to keep improving."
Livingstone puts his form down to a eureka moment during a training session in Bristol with Paul Collingwood and Marcus Trescothick, England's assistant coach and batting coach respectively. He had been running drinks during the ODI series against Sri Lanka and had diagnosed a flaw in his technique. He says that his power comes from his back hip and that he was "losing my front foot", which meant it collapsed rather than driving through his swing.
"Colly and Tres both said exactly the same thing in that session and it pretty much clicked from there," he says. "It was weird: I'd had this breakthrough moment and then the same day, everyone tested positive for corona and we went into ten days of isolation. I came out, had one training session and then went straight into the Pakistan series. It all stemmed from that one training session, which is pretty scary - I'll have to buy Colly and Tres a beer at some stage for the help they've given me.
"It was a great summer for me. I was really enjoying my cricket and feeling super-confident. I couldn't have wished for it to go any better but it's done now, it's gone. We're moving on to a new phase with the IPL now and the World Cup coming up and it will be an even better year if I can put in some performances in them."
"My biggest heroes growing up were Freddie [Andrew Flintoff] and Shane Warne, from watching that 2005 Ashes series, and as I got older, I always wanted to bat like KP," he reflects. "To have your two heroes and KP commentating and talking about you, that was so cool and pretty surreal. I filmed a six-hitting masterclass with KP on Sky and that was a little bit of a fan-boy moment.
"For the last two weeks, before I came away, everyone was like, 'Oh, so you think you're the Beast now, do you?' Towards the [Hundred] final, it felt like a big build-up, but those last couple of games were probably as well as I've played in my career. It's something that comes with doing well, and hopefully I can keep on entertaining because that's the biggest motive for me: to be an entertainer on the pitch.
"That was the coolest thing I found from the Hundred: kids coming up to me, saying, 'I really want to bat like you.' Travelling around the country, you'd see people going into service stations with Hundred cricket shirts on. It felt like it was about inspiring the next generation, seeing kids wanting to go out and smack cricket balls on the front drive rather than staying inside playing Xbox."
Livingstone's emergence could be crucial for England, with his middle-order hitting and ability to bowl both legspin and offbreaks according to the match-ups on offer, making him close to a like-for-like replacement for Ben Stokes, whose ongoing mental-health break will extend through the World Cup. There is an element of good fortune in the timing but Livingstone has targeted this tournament for some time.
In 2019, he decided after discussions with the ECB that he should spend his winter playing short-form leagues rather than touring Australia with England Lions. He thought that at the age of 26 and two years since his only two international caps, he needed to broaden his horizons to force his way back in.
"It was a two-year plan to work my backside off in T20 franchise tournaments," he explains, "firstly to get back into the England environment, then to push my way into the squad for 2021." Over a four-month period from November 2019 to March 2020, Livingstone played more T20s than anyone else, with stints in the MSL, BBL and PSL. "I knew it was going to be hard - [England is] probably one of the hardest teams in world sport to get into - but it's something that I worked really hard at, trying to go away and learn.
"I went to South Africa and played with Quinton de Kock. You don't get that sort of opportunity playing [England] Lions cricket. I had to go away, get out my comfort zone and learn in different environments. The pressure you get as an overseas player is like no other, wherever you go in the world - South Africa, the Big Bash, Pakistan, the IPL - and it sets you up for when you get back to international cricket. I made that decision and I think it was the right one."
In that light, Livingstone's performances for Rajasthan Royals since the IPL's resumption have been a disappointment: his 25 off 17 against Punjab Kings included a 97-metre six off Arshdeep Singh, but his next three innings brought 11 runs off 18 balls and cost him his place for the game against Chennai Super Kings. He has struggled to adjust to the unexpectedly slow pitches in the UAE but insists he is staying level-headed.
"It's been a little bit frustrating, but I've learned that you can't get too high when things are going well and you can't get too low when things aren't going well. I haven't changed anything - I'm doing exactly what I did in the summer - and I'm not feeling too disheartened by it all. I feel like I just need to get a couple of shots away and I'll be fine. Just because I've had a couple of bad games, it doesn't mean that I'm a really bad player all of a sudden. Things can change very quickly.
"In England - or pretty much anywhere in the world - you have a vague idea of what's coming up. The pitches [in the UAE] have been so different from ground to ground and sometimes you can get caught out by not adapting quick enough. Some of them can be quite bouncy when the grass is left on, but when it's taken off, they can be really slow. Clearing an 80-metre boundary in England is a lot easier than it is out here. That's going to be the challenge going into the World Cup, trying to adapt as quickly as you can."
Another stumbling block - not one that is unique to Livingstone - has been adjusting to long stints "locked up" in biosecure conditions. He benefited from time around England's white-ball squads in 2020, because large squads were being picked by necessity. It helped him feel "very comfortable in that environment", but he flew home citing bubble fatigue during the India leg of the IPL earlier this year and will skip this winter's Big Bash in order to spend Christmas with his family.
"The days where you can get out and play golf feel as though they're the biggest privileges in the world at the moment, which is a bit of shame," he says. "I haven't had a break for about three years. I really wanted to go back to Perth but sometimes I've got to make sure that I'm in the right place mentally. It'll be nice to put the bat down and switch my mind off from cricket for a month or so."
But first Livingstone has the World Cup in his sights, and England's bid to become the first team to hold the 50-over and T20 trophies simultaneously.
"We'd be silly not to go in feeling very confident of being able to win it. I certainly think we've got a lot of very good players, a really good squad and a very balanced team. Who knows what the pitches are going to be like, but I guess the teams that go far will be the ones who play the smartest cricket when it matters.
"Playing for your country is one thing, but representing them at a World Cup is probably the biggest thing you want to do as a sportsman. I'll take a lot of confidence from the summer into it. It'll be great fun and an even cooler experience if we can go on and win it. The work I've got to do over the next three weeks is gearing up to that: how can I best help England win a World Cup?"