Liam Livingstone is turning heads with the turning ball as pivotal role awaits
Versatility of allrounder offers balance as England build towards next T20 World Cup
It looked for all money as though Liam Livingstone had produced the decisive moment in November's T20 World Cup semi-final when he had Glenn Phillips caught at long-off, leaving New Zealand needing 60 more runs off 29 balls with no frontline batters left in the dugout. Livingstone let out a guttural roar of celebration before completing a tight final over to return figures of 2 for 22 in his four; if England's death bowlers had held their nerve, it would have been remembered as a match-winning spell.
It completed a fine tournament for Livingstone, despite the fact he had only faced 29 balls with the bat. Across the World Cup, he conceded 5.73 runs an over and only seven boundaries in the 90 balls he bowled. "People call him a part-timer. He's not. He's an allrounder," Eoin Morgan said. "We trust his bowling a lot."
Livingstone's emergence as a bowler - and his ability to bowl both legspin and offspin in a single over, depending on match-ups - allowed England to maintain a batting-heavy strategy throughout and also enabled them to bowl more spin in a T20 World Cup than they ever had previously. And while he will not be available for the first T20I in Barbados, after a bout of non-Covid-related sickness earlier in the week, his place in the first-choice XI is now assured.
It remains to be seen whether a three-spinner, three-seamer strategy is viable in Australia but following Friday's World Cup draw, England's two biggest Super 12s fixtures - against Australia and New Zealand - are at the MCG and the Gabba respectively, both of which have been surprisingly spin-friendly in recent BBL seasons.
Livingstone's versatility came to the fore in the World Cup, generally bowling legbreaks to right-handers and offbreaks to left-handers, albeit with some exceptions. He mainly bowled legspin to the left-handed Devon Conway in the semi-final, looking to defend a big leg-side boundary and perhaps also in the knowledge that Conway is a rare player who is stronger against balls that spin away from him than ones which come in.
"It's obviously unusual because I can't think of anyone else that does it," Gareth Batty, Surrey's assistant coach and former T20 captain, says. "It shows where the modern game is going, and how right-handed batsmen want to take down the ball spinning into them, certainly at international level or the elite franchise level.
"He's clearly spent a lot of time on it. I wouldn't say he's perfected either [legspin or offspin] but he's trying to get them to a very high standard. The fact that he's a batter and whacks them means he can put a little bit of a batsman's psyche into his bowling, so he knows what the batters are thinking at each time."
Carl Crowe, the spin-bowling coach who has worked with Livingstone at Lancashire, says that a shift in mindset has been crucial. "Others talk about him as a part-time spinner but we've talked about him considering himself as a frontline spinner and that's when he's bowled his best," he says. "Even if he's only used as a part-timer in some teams, the mindset of being a frontline spinner certainly seems to have helped him.
"He works incredibly hard at it. Clearly he's got a natural talent but he tries to maximise that and particularly in the second half of his career so far, I think he's realised the value he can add with his bowling. There aren't too many guys around the world who can bowl offspin and legspin like him. It's a unique skillset but with the work he puts in, he's not taking it for granted.
"Top-level batters will be picking it [an offbreak or a legbreak] at the top of his mark; that's less about deception and disguise at the moment, and more about just bowling it," he adds. "He's been working on a googly which is a lot harder to pick - obviously it has the same grip as a legspinner, so they'll only be able to pick it on release or when the ball is in the air. The simple plan is to deceive a batter who doesn't pick it and that's an area he'd been working on at Lancashire before he went away to the West Indies."
With an IPL mega-auction coming up, Livingstone's second string is likely to add value to his bid. "Half the pitches may offer something to the spinners and the other half are generally smaller grounds which works for somebody like Livingstone who hits the ball a very long way," Batty says. "He's loading a lot of bases for you when you're talking about the IPL and skillsets required."
"His batting is already taking lots of interest round the world," Crowe adds, "but I think people in franchise tournaments might start considering him as an allrounder now. That adds value, not only to him monetarily, but also to whichever team he's playing for."
Livingstone can expect to be a key part of England's plans heading into the World Cup in October, not least given his strong record (average 30.38, strike rate 138.14) across two Big Bash seasons for Perth. He had a mild illness earlier this week but is expected to play in the first T20I against West Indies on Saturday, which marks the start of England's World Cup run-in.
Batty, who will be commentating on the series for talkSPORT, expects Kensington Oval - the venue for all five games - to provide England's spinners with a challenge. "You can get certain surfaces there where it's almost like rolled concrete, and you get a sheen on it where it glimmers at you," he explains. "That sometimes says it isn't going to spin a lot, but it might bounce.
"What we know about West Indian batters is that if you put it within their striking area, they'll whack 'em miles. But if you can take it outside of that, outside the eyeline, the extra bounce can work in your favour. It's risk-reward. The ball can travel, it really can.
"Last time I was commentating out there, Chris Gayle walloped a few - it was like he was hitting them onto the cruise ships. The spinners will come into it at some point, and it's just a question of being smart, using the wind because that coastal wind does whip through, and using the dimensions of the ground in your favour."
To follow the action from Barbados, download the talkSPORT app, re-tune your DAB radio, listen at talkSPORT.com or tell your smart speaker to 'play talkSPORT 2'.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98