Kent head coach Matt Walker speaks to Taha Hashim about Sam Billings’ unexpected Test call-up.
Opportunities in an England shirt have not come easily to Sam Billings. Since making his international debut against New Zealand in June 2015, the versatile keeper-batter has acted as the reserve who patiently waits for his go, plays the odd game and is eventually forced back into a drinks-carrying role. Twenty-five ODI appearances have come and gone and he’s suffered from misfortune at times too; a dislocated shoulder ended any hopes of him featuring at the 2019 World Cup.
Until just a few days ago, Billings’ winter looked as if it was to be defined by another missed opportunity. Having warmed the bench during the group stage of England’s T20 World Cup campaign, an injury to Jason Roy meant the 30-year-old was parachuted in for the semi-final against New Zealand. But set to bat at No.7, he wasn’t required during England’s innings and defeat meant he couldn’t make up for it in the final. Now, however, there comes the unexpected chance of a Test debut in an Ashes series, with Billings called in late after injuries to Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow.
It’s fitting that he comes in straight from a stint with Sydney Thunder in the BBL. Most will know Billings from his white-ball work and, beyond England duties, he’s made his way through the top-tier T20 leagues. Subsequently, the red ball has seen little of him. More than a decade on from his first-class debut, Billings has turned out in 74 first-class matches (he averages 34.29 while striking at 60.37). Ollie Pope (61 matches) and Zak Crawley (67), both several years younger than Billings, are the only batters in England’s Ashes squad to have played fewer.
Nonetheless, there have been recent glimpses of a batter capable of making it in the long form. After recovering from his shoulder injury in the summer of 2019, Billings enjoyed a fine run at the end of that County Championship season, hitting three consecutive centuries: a hundred against a Nottinghamshire attack including Ravichandran Ashwin was followed by twin tons against Yorkshire at Headingley. Speaking on the Headstrong podcast last year, Billings said that run of form “was a turning point in my own head that, actually, I could have the game to step up and play Test cricket”.
His head coach at Kent, Matt Walker, also looks at that period as a transformational one. “In 2019, when he put three centuries together, I think you saw the signs of a very talented red-ball cricketer there,” he tells Wisden.com. “I’ve always felt from a long, long time ago, that if opportunity allowed it, and some of it was through his own choice, there was a Test cricketer there. He’s skilful enough, he’s talented enough to be a Test player. He just hadn’t had the time and the upbringing of learning your game in the first-class game, but in recent years, when he’s played for us, his technique has improved.”
Walker points to tweaks in Billings’ backswing as a crucial factor in his recent development. “He [previously] struggled to hit the ball consistently through the off side – he’d usually drive through point. He would struggle to hit the ball back past the bowler. Balls on middle and leg he would usually clip and balls on fourth stump, they’d usually tend to go square rather than back past the bowler or through extra cover. He hits the ball so much straighter now, past the bowler and he’s much more consistent throughout that area.
“It all came down to his swing. His swing was a little bit on the move, a bit up and down whereas now it’s much more still and it’s much cleaner, much smoother. There’s not as much going on. I think he watched [Virat] Kohli bat a lot and watched his swing and tried to copy that. He stands pretty still, trusts his swing and that gets him in a better position.”
The Kent captain comes into the England side as a wicketkeeper, but another quirk to his recent red-ball story has been a lack of time spent behind the stumps. In the last three years, Billings has played as a gloveman in just one first-class match for Kent, with 23-year-old Ollie Robinson spending more time in the role. “With Sam not being around a lot over the last three years and Ollie getting into the team, he’s done a really good job and he’s the man in possession. Ollie’s come in and done a really good job, hasn’t let anybody down, scored runs, kept very well and he’s also a very fine cricketer. Because Sam hasn’t been around as much we’ve just kept the consistency with [Robinson] keeping.”
If there is a future for Billings as an England Test keeper beyond the Ashes, there could be some tough choices to make at the county. “It hasn’t been a problem to a degree because [Billings] hasn’t been around that much in red-ball cricket for him to necessarily demand the gloves and he’s probably felt that he’s been a bit away from the England side. But since last season, he’s probably felt nearer to it so I’m sure we’ll have some more headaches, some good headaches, coming our way on who takes the gloves.”
In the here and now, though, there’s just one match to focus on. For Walker, there’ll be satisfaction in watching Billings receive something that hasn’t always come easily: a chance. “He came in for that opportunity in the [T20] World Cup and just didn’t get a chance to really shine. That’s sort of of been the story of his life – he’s never quite had the run or the real break he needs to cement himself in that side. But he’s close. He works so hard and he’s definitely striving to take that step forward, to become that England regular, become that star we know he can be.”