Graham Thorpe, the interim head coach, described England’s dressing room as like a scene from *M*A*S*H* during the dramatic drawn Sydney Test. And at the end, after two old warhorses in Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad cussedly held firm, one of the injured had to be airlifted out of this gruelling Ashes campaign.
Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, so central to the outcome of a bruising battle, have flown with the squad to Hobart hoping to grit their teeth through Friday’s fifth Test with side and thumb problems respectively. Mark Wood is nursing bruised toes from the Pat Cummins yorker that floored him. But Jos Buttler’s broken finger – collateral damage from a Wood delivery that kept low – was bad enough to end his tour of duty.
Bairstow is technically the spare wicketkeeper but the cracked thumb tip he suffered during the first of two belligerent scores of 113 and 41, rules out retaking the gloves. And though Ollie Pope surpassed expectations as a substitute for Buttler behind the stumps, a frontline replacement was sought by an England side trailing 3-0.
Enter Sam Billings, fresh from the Big Bash League and having answered a call-up 90 minutes before his intended flight for the T20 team’s upcoming Caribbean tour. Assurances he could still feature against West Indies – even if the first international in Barbados on 22 January comes too soon – were sought by a perennial drinks carrier and now a 10-hour hire car road trip down the east coast, plus isolation at the team hotel, looks set to be rewarded with an unexpected Test debut and becoming England cap No 700.
“I am 100% ready if required, and I will give absolutely everything I can,” said Billings. “I have been playing consistent cricket and scoring runs. It doesn’t really matter what format it is, it’s more about rhythm, confidence and mindset. Like any side I go into I will try to make a positive impact on and off the field, in any environment I am put into.
“The three guys who came out to bat in Sydney with injuries, that’s incredible courage, and exactly what everyone involved in English cricket is about – playing for each other and that resilience. There’s a lot of inspiration we can take from that as a group, that character and over-my-dead-body attitude.”
Billings, 30, makes for interesting case study during English cricket’s current existential crisis. A popular and ever-willing fringe player in the well-stocked white-ball setup – winning 58 ODI and T20 caps from a possible 175 since his debut in 2015 – he is among a generation outside the central contract list who have felt encouraged to pursue globetrotting T20 careers. When picked up by the Indian Premier League in particular, this overlaps with big chunks of the red-ball summer.
“It’s a hard one,” said Billings. “I think the contract situation is always a contentious one. As a non-contract [England] player, you have to maximise opportunities because you don’t have that fallback of being picked in the next [national] squad. I’ve only got one career, let’s say five to seven years left of playing cricket. [T20] has been an avenue for me to play cricket. There’s no right or wrong with any of this stuff. It has hampered, I suppose, my chances of playing four-day cricket and ultimately Test cricket.”
The 10 first-class matches Billings has played for Kent since a shoulder injury saw him miss out on the 2019 World Cup squad have returned a batting average of 44.58 and three centuries. Along with an orthodox technique, successes against the higher pace of international attacks and solid glovework in all formats, it points to a player who, in a different era, might have stated a greater case than simply being in the same country.
His nearest brush with a Test cap came in the summer when he was notably the only IPL returnee to burst out of quarantine and act as reserve wicketkeeper to James Bracey in the 1-0 defeat to New Zealand. Though his career differs to that of Usman Khawaja, his Sydney Thunder teammate, Billings is inspired by the “nothing-to-lose” attitude that saw the Australian seize his chance with sparkling twin centuries at the SCG during what was supposed to be a one-off recall.
Billings said: “I thought he spoke fantastically well in terms of having that perspective, having that really open mind to the potential of what’s in front of him, and taking his opportunities. I am in a really good place in my own game. I have made some technical changes over the last few years that I feel have really improved my all-round game regardless of the format, so I’m ready to go if needs be. It doesn’t really matter what format it is, it’s more about rhythm, confidence and mindset.”
Billings arrived from the Covid-afflicted BBL but, touch wood, has not contracted the virus since the last English summer. He and Saqib Mahmood, another Caribbean-bound white-ball player, bubbled up and requested separate changing rooms to their Thunder teammates in the past fortnight to cut risk of transmission – with at least four cases in the squad to date, it looks a shrewd call.
If picked, Billings would be a fifth Test wicketkeeper for England in the space of 12 months – the sixth if you count Pope’s substitute role – and goes against Chris Silverwood’s stated aim of not wanting to hand out debuts in Australia. As the Ashes battlefield has taught England’s head coach, who rejoins the camp after recovering from Covid-19, plans – best laid or otherwise – can go awry.