Sam Billings knows exactly when he was last at home, though the memory is increasingly distant. It was 20 September 2021, two days after he captained Kent to victory in the Vitality Blast. “After that I went Indian Premier League, World Cup, holiday in the Maldives for a week where I got engaged to my other half, Sarah – I haven’t seen her since – and then Big Bash, then Test match, then here.”
These have been four whirlwind months, culminating most recently in a nine-hour, 820km drive from his BBL assignment on Australia’s Gold Coast to join England’s Ashes squad in Tasmania for his Test debut, followed a few days later by a marathon journey to join the Twenty20 side in Barbados via stop-offs in Sydney, Los Angeles and Miami. “I’ve tried to work out how long the journey took about four times,” he says. “The amazing thing was I took off at 11am on the 18th and I landed in LA at 8am the same day. I’d been on a plane for 15 hours. I don’t know what day it is. It’s just great to be here.”
What is particularly remarkable, given how much time he spends on international commitments, is how little international cricket Billings has played. England’s shambolic defeat to West Indies in the first of five T20s on Saturday night was the 30-year-old’s 60th international appearance in all formats, spread across – excluding one-off matches – 30 different series and nearly seven years. He has constantly been asked to score runs without ever being given one.
“Being the age I am now, I’ve got a really good idea of where my game’s at, and what I need to do to be ready,” he says. “The franchise world, I know it’s spoken about really badly by some people but actually it teaches you as a player to be self-sufficient. You work out pretty quickly that you can’t have everything you want, and you have to figure out what you need to get yourself ready to perform in a very short space of time.”
But there has not been a great deal of consistency in his recent international outings, either of selection or output: after Saturday night Billings’ past five international innings had come in three different formats across seven months, and he had scored one, two, two, three and 29. But he arrived here buoyed by his performances in the BBL, where he averaged 40.57 in nine matches.
“This is a really interesting time for me as a cricketer,” he says. “I feel like I’m playing my best cricket and moving forward I’ve just got to play. I can’t sit on the bench. I’ve done enough time doing that. I’ve been in and around the different environments and been a great squad player and actually done pretty well when I’ve stepped in, but clarity is a huge thing for me moving forward.
“With the [Sydney] Thunder, you know you’re going to play this number of games, you know your role, you know you’re a senior player, and you get backed. And after a bit of backing, in terms of a run of games, I back myself to perform every single time. I think it’s the toughest thing to do, coming in and out of a squad. That’s why I was so forthright in saying I’d love to get out to the West Indies, because this is a run of games for me, something I’ve waited for.”
He had to be similarly patient for a chance to play Test cricket before injuries to England’s first- and second-choice wicketkeepers opened a way into the team in Hobart. But unlike some England players Billings will feature in the Indian Premier League auction instead of opting to rest and focus on a red-ball summer. “I really want to give Tests a real good crack,” he says. “I suppose the challenge comes from a clarity point of view. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not centrally contracted, I’ve never been centrally contracted, so it’s very hard to get that clarity as a player. I think central contracts give you real clarity to schedule what you can do for the year. I’ve never had that. Guys like myself, we have to keep our options open.”
The next round of central contracts will be announced in October. Until then Billings will remain on standby, options open – and passport at the ready.