On the day that England’s logjam at the top of their T20 batting order potentially got even more clogged following the successful promotion of Sam Curran as Chennai Super Kings’ latest opening batsman against the Sunrisers Hyderabad, there is at least one candidate for their World Cup plans who has no intention of pushing his way up the order.
After what may yet prove to have been a breakthrough summer in England colours, Sam Billings says he would relish the chance to become the team’s designated finisher, having completed the English international season with his first extended run of opportunities since 2017.
And England may well need him to do just that, given that so many of their batting options are currently gravitating towards the top three, both for England and increasingly in franchise cricket.
For the moment, Jos Buttler and Jason Roy remain England’s first-choice T20 openers, with Jonny Bairstow slated to come in at No. 3 despite his powerful opening partnership with David Warner for the Sunrisers Hyderabad. Tom Banton made his IPL debut at the top of the Kolkata Knight Riders’ order earlier this week, while Dawid Malan, the No.1-ranked T20I batsman in the world, is likely to get a chance to push his case with a stint in the BBL this winter.
And with Ben Stokes returning to action this week as Buttler’s new opening partner at the Rajasthan Royals prior to Curran’s powerful opening cameo of 31 from 21 balls on Tuesday, that leaves Billings and Eoin Morgan as the only two specialist batsmen in England’s most recent T20 squad whose skills are not currently being deployed at the front of the innings.
“There’s quite a few options at the top of the order,” Billings said. “Jason, Tom Banton, Phil Salt… all these guys. But they can battle it out for those three spots. I’ve just focused on what I’ve done this summer and hopefully I can continue that form over the course of the winter.
“It is a different role, and it’s a very specific role,” he added. “So it’s one that I really want to grasp. It’s a role that I’ve done consistently over the last few years for Kent, and something that actually I prefer.”
Billings, 29, withdrew from the Chennai Super Kings’ squad last year, prior to the Covid outbreak, primarily to focus on his red-ball duties with Kent. But with England’s squads split across two formats to allow their full international programme to take place in a condensed season, he seized his recall with a pair of match-winning knocks in tight run-chases against Ireland, before producing a maiden ODI hundred against Australia.
And while his returns in four T20Is against Pakistan and Australia were less imposing, that is the format in which he has produced his finest innings to date for England – a blistering knock of 87 from 47 balls in St Kitts last year, in which he rescued a scoreline of 32 for 4 in the sixth over, to set up a crushing 137-run win.
That innings, however, came shortly before Billings dislocated his shoulder in a fielding accident in his first appearance of the 2019 county season – an injury which ended his hopes of featuring in the World Cup and left him fearing his England career would end up being a series of stand-in appearances when he was omitted from the tour of South Africa earlier this year.
“It’s easy to say that but, actually, if you look at the record, that was a fact,” he said. “This [summer] was the first time I played consecutive games for England in ODI cricket since 2017. And then before that, it was two games against Ireland, and before that it was my debut series back in 2015.
“It’s great to get consistent opportunity and an extended run as a player,” he said. “Chennai have done with loads of players and that’s why they are the most successful franchise around: they give players the opportunity to succeed and fail as well. A game here or there isn’t in anyone’s best interest.
“I know my game,” he added. “In the middle overs, if we’ve lost early wickets, it’s about rotating the spinners, as you see all the best players in the world do. That’s something that I strive towards, and then having the power at the back-end of an innings to win games of cricket.
“I’m never going to be the biggest run-scorer in terms of a competition or a tournament,” he said. “However, in terms of winning games of cricket, whether it’s ten runs off the last three balls, they’re the kind of contributions that are hugely valued in that role, and I want to be the man to do so.”
England’s international plans for the winter remain up in the air, with their planned white-ball tour of South Africa still awaiting clearance from the South African government. But one tournament that Billings will be taking part in is the Abu Dhabi T10, which has been pushed back from its original date in November to January 28-February 6.
And though he does hope to be in the top three for that particular event, Billings reckons that many of the skills required for finishing in T20s will be in even more demand with only 60 balls to play with.
“It’ll be pretty tricky coming in at five or six, you might be in for two balls,” he said. “But it’s about the realisation that, as a batsman especially, your numbers won’t stack up. I think T10 cricket will change how we measure batting, so that instead of averages and traditional strike rates, it’ll be judged in terms of batting impact.
“In T20 cricket, everyone wants to bat in the top three, because it is the nicest place to bat. But actually, a contribution of 20 off six balls as a No. 6 batsman has far more of an impact than, say, 40 off 30 at the top of the order. So how cricket is going to change in that respect is really interesting.”