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Cricket news - Success at home remains Billings's major driver
Around a table sit Faf du Plessis, Shane Watson, Stephen Fleming, Eric Simmons, Sam Billings and a few beers.
Such gatherings among the Chennai Super Kings set-up are no surprise and there was nothing particularly noteworthy about this one at first. Several conversations were taking place at any one time and though such occasions present a welcome break from the harsh stage-lighting of the IPL, cricket was, of course, still a point of interest. But it was a question from Fleming to Billings that merged the various threads of discussion into one.
"What motivates you?" asked the CSK head coach. Billings was caught off guard. Fleming continued, asking what his ambitions were, what he wanted to achieve and how he would set about achieving them. At this point, all eyes are on him.
"I felt like I was put on the spot," Billings tells Cricbuzz. "Fleming is the best coach I've ever worked with and he was really forceful with the question. He and I have always been able to talk frankly. But then to have Faf and Watson there as well listening in - blokes who have done it all in their career - I was a bit nervous."
Once those nerves had subsided, Billings collected his thoughts and went through a checklist: he wanted to establish himself as a regular in England's ODI and T20I XIs and make a name for himself as a captain of Kent. Within his answer came one key nugget: acceptance that Test cricket was no longer the pinnacle of his ambition it once was when he began his journey as a professional in 2011.
Simmons, CSK's bowling consultant, couldn't believe it. The South African played 23 ODIs but was not capped in the five-day game. He could not fathom how a 27-year-old with Billings's talent was happy to close himself off from the Test format voluntarily. Fleming though, a celebrated New Zealand captain and a veteran of 111 Tests, admired his position. As did Watson and du Plessis, with 59 and 58 Test caps respectively.
"Growing up I was always thinking 'the 2005 Ashes, I want to play in that kind of series'. But the game has changed completely since then. Twenty20 has changed the landscape of cricket. It shouldn't be taboo to say Test cricket is not your ultimate goal."
As an example of the biggest indicator of change, Billings offers up himself.
"I'd describe my red-ball game as immature in comparison to even young blokes like Ollie Pope. If you look at him, he's 21 years old and has played 26 first-class games already. Over the last three years, he's played way more than I have."
The comparison with Pope is neat on two fronts. The first is that Pope's 16 Championship matches during Surrey's Championship winning 2018 season was as many as Billings has managed in the last two summers through a combination of international and IPL duty. The second being that when the young keeper-batsman first arrived on the scene, pathway coaches at the England and Wales Cricket Board and even some fellow pros noted Pope had the look of a "young Billings" about him.
Further introspection came at the end of a Lions tour to India at the start of the year. Disappointment at not making the ODI squad for Sri Lanka was allayed somewhat by an offer to captain the Lions. During conversations at that time with national selector Ed Smith, a plan was formulated to get Billings consistent, competitive cricket.
After the 10 matches, he had a debrief with Andy Flower (Lions coach), Jonathan Trott (batting coach) and Bruce French (wicketkeeping coach). Almost a year on from his CSK sit-down, he came armed with clarity. Across five unofficial ODIs and two unofficial Tests, he'd played to type: the standout performer in the former, notching a fine hundred in the first "ODI", but averaging 9.75 (four innings) across the latter.
"I said to them I hadn't scored as many runs as I would have liked," he recalls "And after those games, it confirmed that while my white-ball game is up there, my red-ball is so far behind and is likely to remain that way.
"That's when I made the point that my aim is to be one of the best white-ball players in the world. Why would I jeopardise that by putting it on the back-burner to try and get a shot - not even a guarantee - at Test cricket? If I got called up tomorrow, I'd drop everything, absolutely everything, to play. But it's just not going to happen.
"So why not try and become the best limited-overs player I can be? Fight tooth and nail to get into this World Cup squad, try and bag a consistent spot in the T20s for that World Cup next year and cement a spot in the starting XI when the 50-over World Cup comes back around when I'm 31. Andy totally agreed with me and even said it was nice to hear me say this with a lot of clarity. He was very supportive."
Despite the difficulties, Billings regarded the excursion as two months well spent. It is worth nothing he batted away advances from the Bangladesh Premier League and the Big Bash League when the Sydney Sixers came calling.
"Probably the biggest thing I learned about myself was how I captained. The Lions is very different; you're with blokes for just four weeks and everyone has their own agendas. I'm being judged on how I lead the team so I'm going to be more stubborn than if I'm in a county where you've got to cultivate those relationships.
"You are trying to pull a team together when players want to do things their own way because, naturally, they want to shine and make the step-up to the next level of international cricket. It's a really interesting dynamic."
From the Lions, he went to the Caribbean for the T20 leg of England's West Indies tour and smoked 87 from 47 balls in the second T20I, coming in at a precarious 32 for 4 in the fifth over and taking the score to 182 for 6. A live example, then, of what Billings was talking about regarding the difference in coherence between red and white ball plans.
"I just knew exactly what I had to do in that situation: treat it like I'm batting at four and the score is actually 32 for 2. Come in, see out the Power Play, rebuild and explode at the end."
He walked off with a feeling of relief. It was, after all, only his fourth half-century (split evenly between ODIs and T20is) in 30 limited-overs innings for England. "My phone blew up. Reading some of the comments, it was as if the knock was proof other people needed that I could perform at this level. For me, I saw that performance as - that is normal for me. I just haven't shown that consistently through the opportunities I've got."
Such broad-thinking is nothing new for Billings and it is when matters turn to Kent that you see the full scope of it. For instance, he works closely with director of cricket Paul Downton to identify potential signings, enlisting the help of a freelance data analyst to aid decisions around overseas recruitment. Often, his international and franchise career means he will have come up against or alongside these players, as was the case with 2018's T20 Blast acquisitions of Australian allrounder Marcus Stoinis and Blackcaps quick Adam Milne.
He delves into the finer points, too, such as where these signings call home during their stints. "It's just simple things - you're away from your home and your family. If you've got a nice place, then it makes settling in easier. Like, how hard is it for us just to make sure there's a bottle of milk in the fridge when they arrive. Just little things like that go a long way."
This season's shopping has been a little more complex. The World Cup and other international tours have meant having to be a bit cute with recruitment. Stoinis and Kiwi Matt Henry are no-gos, but Milne returns for a third consecutive T20 Blast spell, plus Afghanistan's Mohammed Nabi, who offers the spin-bowling, top-order batting option that Kent might lose if Joe Denly makes the Ashes. Their biggest coup, though, might be Aussie southpaw Matt Renshaw.
"Early season, Joe and I are both at the IPL. So we had to get a batter. We wanted someone with Championship experience but also the double-edged sword of having something to prove down the line. In Renshaw's case, it's the Ashes. He was quality for Somerset last year and, with them signing Azhar Ali, we figured it was the perfect opportunity to go and get him.
"That's been one of the many benefits of having Downton. We're really proactive. Last year was there was a process of identifying what we need. In the past, there were a lot of moving parts with the cricket committee but no real method to it. Now it just happens. Downton has been an absolute revelation. The support for the coach and the captain is just top class."
Results on the pitch pointed to such harmony. Kent won promotion back to Division One, contested the Royal London Cup final at Lord's, losing to a Hampshire side inspired by one of their own Sam Northeast, and a T20 Blast quarter-final. South African Heino Kuhn - a Kolpak - was a revelation, along with right-arm quick Harry Podmore who bagged 43 Division Two wickets. His haul was dwarfed by Henry's 75.
Less established players, too, stood up. Zak Crawley, tipped for big things, bagged 755 runs at 31 in his first full season of four-day cricket. All in, Billings reflects fondly on a first year in charge which started with a degree of trepidation.
"I got a lot of stick. The fans were very negative at first, but you could understand it. They'd seen us lose two big players in Matt Coles and Sam Northeast. Some of the things that were said about the club were laughable. But then to see people eat their words, even five games in."
So, what is the measure for team success this time? Consolidating Division One status is an obvious one. But trophies are all that matter for Billings and it is in the shortest format he sees the biggest opportunity.
"You look at the top six or seven that we could put out, especially with Nabi now, who is a gun signing. We've got power in the middle order and up top, there's DBD (Daniel Bell-Drummond) and Denly, with Heino in at three. Me at four. That's settled with a clear game plan. Then Nabi, Alex Blake and Crawley.
"And the bowling attack is versatile: Milne's pace, Podmore's consistency, Mitch Claydon at the death; all modes of spin - even Freddy Klassen's left-arm seam. I certainly believe we are in the top four best T20 sides in the country."
Kent are likely to see more of Billings this season than last, penciled in for 12 Championship games if he isn't needed for the World Cup. Though his personal trajectory may be set on becoming a global force, success at home remains a major driver for him in 2019.
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