Sam Billings flies to the UAE on Monday ahead of a winter that could prove career-defining but, before then, is tasked with becoming the first Kent captain since Rob Key to lift a trophy on T20 Finals Day at Edgbaston.

Billings will link up with Delhi Capitals for the second half of the IPL and then the England squad for the T20 World Cup, before flying to Australia for the Big Bash - and possibly the Ashes, after spending the summer on the fringes of the Test set-up. He does not expect to return to the UK until early February and while the opportunity to win a world title and two T20 leagues over the winter is enticing, there is no guarantee that his reward will be any greater than some hotel loyalty club points and yet more frequent flier miles.

By the time he returns home, the Blast could have been sitting in Kent's trophy cabinet - providing anyone can remember where the key is, after a silverware drought dating back to the Division Two title in 2009 - for five months. That would surely go some way to appeasing Billings' detractors, who have been a bizarre feature of his unwittingly controversial captaincy since he succeeded Sam Northeast ahead of the 2018 season.

He has led Kent only 45 times across formats after four years in the job, with injury, illness, international call-ups and IPL deals limiting his availability, and has been targeted by the club's more vocal supporters on social media who brazenly suggest that his regular absences prove he does not devote enough attention to his county.

Billings decided it was time to hit back at the trolls after top-scoring in last month's Blast quarter-final against Birmingham Bears before leading his side's tigerish defence from behind the stumps. "People think I don't care - well, I think they're deluded," he said. "As a bloke who has been at the club since the age of eight, [winning the Blast] would mean everything," he reiterated in a press conference before Finals Day. "I'd be lying if I didn't say that playing for Kent means a lot to me."

While there is little doubt that Kent want to have their captain available more often, there is also a mutual appreciation that Billings' globetrotting brings its own benefits - and not only in terms of his own improvement as a middle-order batter. Billings has acted as a head-hunter on England tours and in T20 leagues, convincing team-mates and opponents over rounds of golf or cups of coffee that they should sign for Kent as overseas players, and it is clear that he sees the captaincy as extending beyond his on-field responsibilities.

"How long have you got?" he joked, asked to outline the behind-the-scenes aspect of the role. "Thankfully the whole club structure changed a few years ago - it needed to get up to this century. Paul Downton came in and his impact has been huge in terms of the accountability of a director of cricket and that how structure has taken a lot of the off-field stuff off our plate. That has helped hugely."

2021 has been another strange summer for Billings, who has served more drinks in his career than a cheap student nightclub during freshers' week. "I came back from the IPL, did 10 days' quarantine at Heathrow watching the planes go over, played a game for Kent and all of a sudden was in the Test bubble," he recalled. "Then I got Covid just before the Pakistan series - it's been pretty eventful, I'm not going to lie.

People think I don't care - well, I think they're deluded
Billings hit back at his critics after Kent's quarter-final win

"I haven't played as much as I would have liked but it's the kind of stuff that's been out my control, unfortunately. To be around that Test bubble was amazing - a different experience and environment which has definitely given me more motivation and enthusiasm for playing longer-form cricket. Who knows, opportunities might present themselves down the line."

He also celebrated his 30th birthday, a landmark that seems hard to square with his status as England's perennial coming man in white-ball cricket. "Thanks for that," he laughed. "They talk about batters coming into your best years in your early 30s and hopefully that is the case. I feel like I'm heading in that direction and am at peace with where my game is at, really. It's an exciting time."

Perhaps the highlight of his summer to date was the Hundred, captaining Oval Invincibles to within a point of the knockout stages - though leading Kent to a trophy on Saturday would surely pip it. For players like Billings, James Vince and David Willey who have travelled the world playing franchise leagues without cementing their England places, the tournament's appointment-to-view billing and platform afforded them a level of status unseen in the county game.

"I think it was a great success," he said. "Matt Milnes is a great example: he played for Kent in the 50-over competition and the next night played [for Welsh Fire] in front of a packed crowd at The Kia Oval. For guys to be exposed to 25,000 people, bowling to Jason Roy and getting him out first ball, that's been a huge benefit for Kent and I'm hoping that tomorrow he'll take it in his stride.

"The T20 Blast has produced so many quality cricketers and has been the production line in the last five or seven years, and we've seen the success that the England white-ball teams have had which is hugely down to the Blast and guys having consistent opportunities. That's not going to change."

Billings faces some tough calls ahead of the second semi-final against Sussex on Saturday, with Adam Milne missing on IPL duty and Alex Blake ruled out through injury. That may allow Darren Stevens - left out in the Bears win after a triumphant return to the T20 side this summer - to regain his place while Qais Ahmad's availability for Finals Day comes as an unexpected bonus.

"It's taken a couple of years for the group to move forward and gain the experience that's needed in those big games," he said. "In T20 cricket experience counts for a lot so it was a matter of quite a few of the younger guys gaining that experience in big games in front of big crowds. The belief from winning consistently has really helped the group. We won the South Group, we've won a lot of games and confidence has come from that."

Vitality Blast Finals Day 2021 is supporting the players' charity: the Professional Cricketers' Trust. Saturday 18 September will see a day of fundraising and awareness for the Trust on one of the biggest days of the domestic calendar at Edgbaston. Visit bit.ly/DonateFinalsDay to find out more and donate.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98