Back in 2015, England represented an ODI side that was firmly in turmoil. The Three Lions, often panned for their archaic approach to the format, lacked the cutting edge and the conviction to succeed while the experiment to hand Alastair Cook the ODI reins had a counter productive effect as well.
Subsequently, England arrived at the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup having disposed off Alastair Cook as the captain. More importantly, they entered the competition clueless as to their best modus operandi – something that became painfully evident through the course of the tournament.
Eoin Morgan, who was appointed as the skipper then, hardly had the time or the resources to ingrain his philosophy on the side before the global competition. And, rather unsurprisingly, England were dumped out of the World Cup by Bangladesh.
More tellingly, it seemed poetic that Bangladesh were the team to consign the Three Lions to their death bed, considering the Tigers were probably waxing as an ODI outfit while England were clearly on the wane.
Post that debacle, England inevitably went back to the drawing board, hoping to find a remedy that would not just cure them of the ailments that plagued them then, but also find a tonic that would set them in pristine condition for a home ODI World Cup in 2019.
Eoin Morgan rang in the changes, got rid of players previously pressed into prioritizing calculation over creativity and unfurled a bunch of fearless individuals – each willing to forego personal milestones for the objectives laid out by the team.
Among those entrusted with bringing forth the new approach though was another precociously talented youngster and one who had set the county stage alight with his performances.
Yet, for varying reasons, another prospective modern English limited-overs batsman aka Sam Billings just couldn’t align his stars in order, meaning that he missed out on the World Cup bus.
Like teams of yesteryear, England have also decided to freshen things up a tad after attaining the crest of world cricketing domination. In fact, most sides have often been guilty of stagnating after reaching the top – something that the Three Lions have been hell-bent on avoiding, considering their struggle to reach the pinnacle in the first place.
And, that in turn, has opened up opportunities for Sam Billings again.
For the average cricket-watching folk, Sam Billings is a name that has been frequently associated with various T20 leagues across the globe. With stints in the Big Bash League, the IPL, the PSL and New Zealand’s premier T20 competition, the Englishman has accumulated every ounce of T20 experience on offer.
However, for all the talent he possesses, he has not yet managed to carve a niche in any of those competitions, meaning that he has embodied a journeyman cricketer rather than being termed a hardened match-winning mercenary.
A lot of criticisms aimed at Sam Billings have been around his inability to make starts count and his failure to make the most of favourable situations. To put things into perspective, the wicket-keeper batsman famously captured the imagination of the Chennai Super Kings faithful with a whirlwind knock against Kolkata Knight Riders during IPL 2018.
After that though, a string of low scores followed and he eventually lost his place in the side. And, similar parallels could be drawn with his international career.
In England’s first ODI assignment post the 2015 World Cup, Sam Billings showed glimpses of his natural ability with blistering knocks lower down the order against New Zealand.
The wicket-keeper’s essays of 41 and 34 at Durham and Southampton respectively, drive that particular point home. His next substantial innings came nearly 16 months later though, when he scaled the 50-run peak for the first time in his ODI career (against Bangladesh).
Though his next half-century came in March 2017 against the West Indies, he endured a woeful run of form in the build-up to the 2019 World Cup, thereby casting his place in doubt, irrespective of his injury troubles.
Similarly, in the T20 format, he had to wait more than three and a half years to notch up his next half century, once he had breached that barrier against Pakistan in November 2015.
Thus, there seems a general trend as far as his displays with the bat are concerned. While he often mesmerizes with his effervescent, albeit brief showings of stroke-play, he follows it up with a string of uninspiring performances.
Sam Billings scored a match-winning fifty against Ireland
Consequently, post an accomplished knock against Ireland on the 30th of July 2020, several have been shy to jump the gun and proclaim Sam Billings as having turned a corner. And, in truth, that wouldn’t particularly be unwarranted.
Yet, there were signs at the Ageas Bowl, both technical and mental, that Sam Billings is indeed a different cricketer from the one that mediated between the magnificent and the mediocre far too consistently.
For a change, the Englishman looked in control against spinners. He tackled Andy McBrine, Gareth Delany and Simi Singh with comfort and put the trio under pressure whenever possible.
Though there were the odd overs where he struggled to rotate the strike and chipped the ball aerially, he compensated for it with calculated risks that fetched him boundaries.
Against the pacers, Sam Billings looked accomplished and showcased exemplary footwork. At times, the Irish bowlers decided to test out the middle of the wicket but their efforts were disdainfully punished by the Englishman.
Most promisingly though, Sam Billings, despite his propensity to work the ball onto the leg side, very seldom lost his balance and fell over. There were occasions when the Irish bowlers tried exploiting the wicket-keeper’s weakness by bowling a straighter line. But, Sam Billings confidently thwarted them.
Apart from the technical aspects, Sam Billings, rather encouragingly, showed the stomach for a fight, especially as England were edging towards a calamitous batting collapse.
And, unlike previous instances, the Englishman was willing to weather the storm before landing the counter punches that sucked the wind out of the Irish sails.
While Sam Billings still looked a touch tentative trying to nudge and nurdle into the off side, the positives certainly outweighed any negatives his innings threw up.
Thus, evidence suggests that Sam Billings might have perhaps come off age. Yet, it remains imperative that England accord the wicket-keeper the luxury of a long rope.
So far, the Three Lions have shuffled the Englishman around the batting order at every possible opportunity. In 13 ODI innings, Sam Billings has opened 4 times, batted at No.6 and 7 on four occasions and of course, played at three-down once (against Ireland).
In the shortest format, that pattern hasn’t changed, meaning that Sam Billings has not enjoyed the continuity of any position. Furthermore, the Englishman has played some games as the primary finisher whereas he has also been asked to function in a secondary role in the presence of Messrs. Buttler and Stokes.
Moreover, with two of the next three white-ball ICC tournaments set to take place in India, England might be better served investing in Sam Billings, considering his proclivity to milk spin bowling and mix it with moments of belligerence.
At this point though, it seems ludicrous to think that he would make England’s ‘best XI’ in ODIs and T20Is. Yet, if teams were made solely on talent, he would walk into each Three Lions outfit that ever takes the field.
Unfortunately for him, that’s not how cricket or any professional sport works. And, after years of promise, he has perhaps arrived at a crossroad where nothing but meaningful performances would aid his cause.
Though he was initially looked upon as the harbinger of better times post the 2015 World Cup, the onus might now shift onto him as the flag-bearer of another English side aspiring to reach the summit of ODI cricket.
And, if England can come back from that hammering at the 2015 World Cup and establish themselves as white-ball pioneers, one reckons that Sam Billings could also take a leaf out of that book and do something similar.
After all, wasn’t he originally meant to do so anyway?