Sam Billings has insisted he has nothing to lose as he prepares for one of English cricket’s unlikeliest Test debuts in Hobart this week – but admitted he needed assurances he would not miss England’s T20 series in the Caribbean.
Only an hour or two away from boarding a flight to the UK on Friday night from Australia, where he has flourished for Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash, he is set to take the gloves in the fifth Ashes Test.
Finger injuries to Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow are one reason; the decision not to keep Ben Foakes in Australia after the England Lions tour last month is another.
Sam Billings has insisted he has nothing to lose as he prepares an unlikely Test debut
Billings was hours away from a flight back to the UK after starring for Sydney Thunder
It all added up to a 500-mile drive from the Gold Coast to Sydney, a couple of PCR tests, and a 90-minute flight to Tasmania – just another few days in the life of an itinerant cricketer.
It is hardly the first time England have raided left field: think Darren Pattinson, Simon Kerrigan, Scott Borthwick, Boyd Rankin and Mason Crane. But each might reasonably have expected to play again. With Foakes set to be available for the Test series in the West Indies in March, it’s possible the 30-year-old Billings will remain a one-cap wonder.
That, though, is for the future, and seasoned observers of English cricket have learned not to look too far ahead. For the moment, he must quickly make the transition from the hurly burly of T20 to the attrition of an Ashes Test.
‘I’m 100 per cent ready if required, and I will give absolutely everything I can,’ he said. ‘My game is in a good place. It has been in the longer format for the last three years for Kent.’
But finger injuries to Jonny Bairstow (left) and Jos Buttler (right) mean he is now set to keep wicket in the final Ashes Test
These things are relative. Billings has played only 10 Championship games since the start of the 2019 season, as the IPL, limited-overs internationals – he has played 58 for England – and the Hundred have all intervened. He is a sign of the times: a talented batsman diverted from first-class cricket by market forces and razzmatazz.
Even now, there is the sense of a player who is happy to go with the flow. And after listening to Thunder team-mate Usman Khawaja following twin hundreds on his Test comeback at the SCG, Billings is refusing to stress.
‘He was very honest and said: “I wasn’t sure if this opportunity would come again.” As you’ve seen, that’s how to grab an opportunity. Hopefully I can take some inspiration from him. You have got nothing to lose and everything to gain.’
His decision to delay the long journey to Barbados, where England start a five-match T20 series against West Indies a week on Saturday was not straightforward. And while he is likely to miss the first match, he told managing director Ashley Giles he wanted to play the rest.
Ben Foakes (centre) was also not kept in Australia after the England Lions tour last month
‘I’ve done way too much running the drinks,’ he said. ‘So it was having that real clarity I wasn’t going to compromise that opportunity in the West Indies. Gilo agreed to that.’
The bartering is understandable. In 2019, Billings missed out on a chance to be in England’s one-day World Cup squad because of a shoulder injury – an experience he calls ‘the hardest of my career, from a mental aspect’. He added: ‘At times, it’s hard to keep trudging away.’
But he refused to feel sorry for himself – ‘I don’t think you’re owed anything’ – and instead settled for the oldest cliche in the sporting book. He decided to take things a day at a time: ‘The biggest thing for me was to just enjoy my career.’
After listening to Usman Khawaja following twin hundreds on his Test comeback at the SCG, Billings is refusing to stress about his long-awaited debut in the five-day international game
His lack of an ECB contract should mitigate any criticism for appearing to place franchise cricket ahead of his Test ambitions.
‘It’s a hard one,’ he said. ‘As a non-contract player, you have to try and maximise those opportunities, because you don’t have that fallback of knowing you’ll be picked in the next squad. Being constantly in that mindset isn’t very healthy.
‘Playing in those T20 leagues, the great thing is you get signed as an overseas player and you get valued in that environment. You know you’re going to play a run of games and it’s great, to be honest. So, yes, it is a really tough one.’
Meanwhile, fast bowler Mark Wood is expected to be fit for Friday’s fifth Test despite suffering bruised toes on his left foot after he was yorked by Pat Cummins on the last evening at Sydney.
But he wanted assurances he would not miss England’s T20 series against West Indies