By Francis Kelly
Sam Billings was completing his first year of A-Levels when the inaugural Indian Premier League tournament began.
He never thought at the time that he’d go on to play in the competition, and he still had doubts there would be a game waiting for him after being picked up by the Delhi Daredevils for the 2016 edition, eight years later.
Yet Billings, part of the exciting generation of England players that stormed the recent World T20, ensured when his chance did come, it would be a memorable one.
Smashing 54 off 34 deliveries against a Kolkata Knight Riders team including Andre Russell, Sunil Narine and Brad Hogg, the 24-year-old retrieved the match for Delhi and helped create a winning total.
All the more impressive was 40 runs of his half-century coming off the spinners.
The performance had pundits cooing over the youngster’s batting dynamism, with England batting coach, Mark Ramprakash, hailing the innings as “exceptional”.
Billings remained more pragmatic about his IPL debut, however: “It’s quite surreal to be in the IPL, to be honest. I was fully aware I could go without playing a game,” he told The Cricket Paper. “Being on the fringes for quite a while, it was just good to get an opportunity and make the most of it.
“The most pleasing thing is playing spin bowling in their conditions. If you can play it here, then you can play it anywhere.
“I’m obviously happy that we won, too, especially considering the position we were in, but also that I batted in a role that not many people see me in.
“I definitely don’t want to be labelled as a finisher or a slogger but it was nice to show I’ve got another string to my bow.”
The third-youngest Englishman to ever play in the IPL, after Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara, Billings’ development as a cricketer has run concurrently with the emergence of the biggest domestic T20 competition in the world.
Its influence is easy to see in the colourful, unshakable way he bats, confidently mixing inventive shots alongside more orthodox ones.
And with England’s director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, putting extra emphasis on the white-ball format before England host the 2019 World Cup, there has never been a better time to gain experience in overseas T20 leagues.
“I’ve grown up with T20 cricket,” Billings said. “The reverse sweep is a very normal shot for me. The stiffs of the game still scoff when I get out playing it, though.
“Some people said ‘that’s a waste of time [going to the IPL], you’ve got two months of county cricket at home you could play’, but as long as you have the right work ethic it’s impossible not to improve here with some of the best players to learn from.
“I know now how to deal with different situations: what works and what doesn’t. At the end of the day, even when I wasn’t playing, I learned as much as possible. It’s been an invaluable experience.”
Billings could be excused for taking it easy during the IPL, having spent so long away from home and enduring an exhausting World T20 tournament.
Yet with the spectre of the final loss to West Indies now banished, and the Daredevils allowing the Kent batsman a quick break to Goa with his girlfriend, Billings returned refreshed for the hustle and bustle of IPL cricket.
He was quick to take advantage of the situation, seizing on any moment possible to discuss cricket with Delhi mentor and Indian great Rahul Dravid.
“I’ve been here a long time now and it does drain you, mentally more than physically,” Billings added. “It was nice to get away for a couple of days.
“I’m massively spoilt to have a guy like Rahul Dravid around. A key thing he said to me early on is that you shouldn’t undersell yourself.
“From a technical point of view, he said there’s nothing he can point out. To be told that from someone like Dravid was a real compliment and a confidence booster.
“Instead he’s focused on the tactical side. Highlighting how to play different pitches against different attacks.”
There was even time in between the matches and travel for talk to turn to the longer format of the game.
With England visiting India later this year for a five-Test series, and a vacancy opening up in the middle order, Dravid’s advice could prove priceless to Billings’ Test dreams.
“He’s actually put time aside for a bit of red ball practice, and chats to me about building an innings and things like that,” Billings said. “I’m definitely trying to improve that side of my game. At the end of the day, you want to play Test cricket as well, so there’s no better bloke to talk to about the game.”
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday May 13 2016