Sam Billings has been backed as a potential Test batsman by Michael Vaughan © Getty Images
Sam Billings, the Kent batsman whose technique against spin bowling is considered one of the best among England’s coming generation of batsmen, says he is flattered to have been talked up by Michael Vaughan as a potential reinforcement for the Test tour of India, but insists that he remains a work in progress in first-class cricket.
Billings has been on the fringes of the one-day squad for several months without being able to secure a regular berth, but he gave an indication of his aptitude in Asian conditions in the ODI series against Bangladesh last month, when he was drafted in to open the batting in the series decider in Chittagong, and swept his way to a vital 62 from 69 balls in a stiff run-chase.
“It was great to contribute,” said Billings during a Chance to Shine event in West London. “I should have got 120 not out to win the game but that’s life and I would have taken 60 at the start. To be involved in another series win in difficult conditions shows how far we are coming along as a group.
“Everyone knew that Bangladesh had won their last six home series, including against India and South Africa, so it was no mean feat to win. People think it is only Bangladesh so you should just smack them around but, with Shakib Al Hasan, Tamim Iqbal and Imrul Kayes, they’ve got a seriously good side in their own conditions.”
Bangladesh backed up that assertion in no uncertain terms in the subsequent Test series and, speaking in the aftermath of England’s shocking collapse in the second Test at Dhaka, Vaughan argued strongly for Billings’ inclusion for the five-Test series against India that gets underway in Rajkot next week – not least because, as a right-hander, he will be better placed to combat the offspin of India’s attack leader, Ravi Ashwin.
“Obviously that is flattering,” Billings said, “Playing spin is one of my strengths. Manoeuvring the ball around and putting spinners under pressure is one of my strengths, but the guys who are there have done it regularly in first-class cricket and are there for a reason.”
Billings had his moments in first-class cricket for Kent last season, most notably a career-best 171 against Gloucestershire in Bristol in August but, having missed the early weeks of the summer during his IPL stint, he played just seven Division Two matches and was unable to put together the weight of runs that earned Ben Duckett and Haseeb Hameed their call-ups.
“Haseeb hasn’t had an opportunity yet, and to have a long run at it too,” he said. “These guys have done it over and over in first-class cricket. But any time England calls you just get on a plane and try and get the job done.”
While the prospect of Billings joining the England squad remains, for the time being, a pundit’s pipedream, there is no diluting either his confidence or his eagerness to get involved if the chance should arise. And, having sampled the atmosphere of modern Indian cricket during his IPL stint with Delhi Daredevils, Billings believes he has been granted a fascinating insight into what it takes to succeed in conditions that previous generations might have regarded as alien.
“The IPL was huge for that,” he said. “It is different to a Test match but the basics don’t change: your footwork is paramount.
“I was very fortunate to work with Rahul Dravid in the IPL and pick his brains on playing spin. At some points we moved the stumps back and had the used crease to play with and he said, ‘if you can bat on that you can bat on anything’.
“This is one of the reasons [Trevor] Bayliss and [Andrew] Strauss are pushing us to go over there. Yes it is T20 cricket but it is about the environment and learning how those guys go about it.”
Billings’ grounding sounds somewhat counter to Alastair Cook’s assertion in the aftermath of the Dhaka defeat, that England’s batsmen were inexperienced in Asian conditions. And certainly, given the resources made available by the ECB on their recent Lions tours, and the coaching expertise that has been drafted in to prepare England’s next generation, the scale of the collapse in Dhaka – 10 wickets for 64 runs in 22.3 overs – was extreme.
And if the talking point coming out of the Bangladesh tour is the vulnerability of England’s batsmen to the ball turning away from the bat – particularly the left-handers to the offspin of Mehedi Hasan – then Billings gives the impression that such a challenge shouldn’t have come as quite such a surprise, especially given the identity of two of the lead coaches in the Lions set-up.
“Graham Thorpe and Andy Flower may be two left-handers, but they were great players of spin, especially against offspin with the turning away from the bat,” he said. “The basics don’t change, you have to get as close to the ball as possible or as far away from it as possible using the depth of the crease.
“For me, I identified two years ago that left-arm spin was a really big area I needed to work on,” he said. “The ball going away or sliding on is generally more difficult for a batter when it is turning.”
In the UAE last winter, he was able to pick the brains of New Zealand’s left-arm spinner, Daniel Vettori, who was drafted in as a consultant on the England Performance Programme. “We had a hybrid pitch that was ragging square. He was bowling at a good pace, it was seriously tough, and that’s when you work out what’s good for you.”
As a consequence of the grounding that he and his fellow batsmen have been given, and given the experienced heads they can call upon during the India tour, Billings remains confident that England will find a means to battle back from their Dhaka ignominy and put up a fight in the coming weeks.
“[Alastair] Cook, in his debut Test, got a hundred in India, so they’ve got no better bloke to pick the brains of – although, of course, he does it a different way. Stokesy [Ben Stokes] is still one of the younger lads, even though it feels he’s been around for years, and in terms of his game against spin, he’s come on leaps and bounds and will only get better. We’ll all get better, the more we are exposed to it.
“It’s finding different ways all over the place. I’ve got no doubt there are some seriously good players of spin there. It’s a different kettle of fish against [Ravi] Jadeja and Ashwin, but it’s been great to have had these two Test matches. We got out unscathed – yeah we drew, I know we wanted to win – but we’ll go into the India tour with preparation time. I’ve got full faith in the boys and they are definitely good enough to win.”
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo