(Photo: Getty Images)
By Paul Edwards
About three years ago the Lancashire coach Glen Chapple and England fast bowler James Anderson were putting one of their county’s young batsmen to the test in the artificial nets at Old Trafford. They were using new balls and neither was holding back.
After batting very well for a while the apprentice suddenly smashed a perfectly respectable delivery from Anderson through the covers. The England bowler’s surprise was immediately reflected in his ripe choice of expletive followed by an enquiry. “Can he do that on grass?” he asked Chapple. “I don’t know,” came the reply.
Well, he knows now.
Chapple tells that story of his first sight of Liam Livingstone with typically wry humour and a heap of admiration. Any coach worth a wage enjoys his first sight of precocious talent. “On that day Liam made it look quite simple,” he says of the 24-year-old who has been named in England’s squad for March’s two-Test tour of New Zealand.
In the summers since that net, Livingstone has remained true to his precious simplicity. Only when his peers try to emulate his scornful swats through the covers or his easeful clips over square leg do they understand the rarity of their colleague’s gift.
Journalists – this one, anyway – still talk about the six he hit off the Warwickshire seamer Rikki Clarke in June 2016 when he stroked a reverse-swinging red ball over wide mid-on and deep into Old Trafford’s stands. Livingstone had then been playing first-class cricket for a shade over two months.
For the rest of that season much of the media’s attention was focused on the performances of the 19-year-old Haseeb Hameed. Yet when Lancashire’s championship batting averages were produced Livingstone was at the top of them with 815 runs at 50.93.
His colleagues ribbed him about the fact of his “hiding” at No7 in the batting order. Yet last year he was promoted to No3 and made 803 runs in 11 matches at 47.24. Skulking is not Liam Livingstone’s style.
Then there is his T20 cricket. Livingstone made his debut for Lancashire in the 2015 T20 Blast and was a member of the side that won the trophy at Edgbaston in August. But he first attracted widespread attention when he whacked a 21-ball half-century in a televised game against Yorkshire in 2016.
There have been other such innings and Livingstone seems made for the T20 franchises around the globe. Yet when presented with the option of playing short-form cricket this winter, he chose to work on his red-ball game with the aim of playing Test matches for England. His views on the matter deserve mentioning to anyone who believes that T20 must overwhelm the cricket world like cricketing leylandii.
“I spoke to the Lions coach Andy Flower at the start of the winter and said my ultimate goal was to play Test cricket for England,” he said. “I could have played T20 around the world but I don’t see that as the strongest part of my game.
“And I think if you asked 99 per cent of county players, they would see Test cricket as the pinnacle. It’s still the toughest form of the game and the format in which success gives you the most pleasure. T20 is great for our sport but when people say that Test cricket is becoming less important, I don’t think that’s true at all. You look at the Ashes and you realise that playing in Test matches is what everyone wants.”
So as he prepares with the England Lions in the West Indies for what may yet be the tour on which he makes his Test debut Livingstone can take encourage-ment from the courage he showed in making two centuries against Sri Lanka A in the heat of Dambulla last February.
The selectors may also have noted his ability to field in almost any position, especially slip, and his more than useful off-spin bowling, the latter discipline only being acquired when he broke both wrists trying to take a catch on an England age-group tour and couldn’t bowl his leggies while his wrists healed.
“One day I started bowling off-spin and then a couple of years later I turned back to leg spin because I was bored in the nets one day,” he said. “Now I can try to use whatever’s needed on the day.”
Those decisions will be his now that he has been appointed county captain for the coming season. Before that, though, he has the New Zealand tour to come and, with luck, the question of whether he can cut it at Test level.
“Everyone knows Liam’s talented, but he’s also worked hard for this,” said Chapple. “He rises to a challenge and I think his selection is good timing. There have been fantastic players in county cricket who haven’t done as well as you’d expect and there have been others who have made better Test players than they were in domestic cricket.
“But I think Liam’s game is equipped for Test cricket. If he can manage the step up and get the bit of the luck you need to get off to a start, I’ve got every confidence he’ll do well. My opinion is that as more people get to know more about him, they will realise he can do all sorts. He can graft. Most people assume he’s a shot player and a free flowing batsman, but he can graft.
“He’s got a sound technique and he has soft hands. He’s a good leaver of the ball and he can play it late. But then again, he can play all around the wicket. He can up the pace when the situation’s right. Providing he gets his thought processes correct, he’s tough to bowl at. As soon as he came into the first team, he made batting look simple at times.”
Moreover, if Livingstone does make the most of his international opportunities – and most people reckon it is a question of when rather than whether they come along – one hopes that Lancashire’s coaches will be given their due credit.
For in a sport where the replication of technique is frequently identified as a means of achieving success wise men like the former Academy director at Old Trafford, John Stanworth, and the current assistant coach, Mark Chilton, have left one of the most interesting cricketers in the land to develop his own skills.
“You should know your own game and the relationship I’ve had with coaches like Stanny and Chilly has always helped me,” he said. “I’ve been allowed to find my own way but with a little bit of guidance and hopefully that can continue. Once you get to Test level you shouldn’t need to be coached.”