Cricket news - England's ODI team is one of the toughest to get into: Sam Billings

Sam Billings made a solid case for a long rope for himself in the middle order with an attacking fifty in the first ODI

Sam Billings made a solid case for a long rope for himself in the middle order with an attacking fifty in the first ODI

Sam Billings says England's ODI team is one of the hardest teams to break into in world sport, but believes he has the game to succeed in the middle order, a claim given credence by an excellent half-century in the first ODI against Ireland on Thursday (July 30).

Before the series began, Eoin Morgan said the middle order is the one area of England's 50-over squad which needs more depth and challenged the likes of Billings, Joe Denly and Tom Banton to present their case against Ireland in the absence of a number of first-choice players who are part of the Test set-up preparing for next week's first Test against Pakistan.

Billings, the Kent captain, might not have played in the first ODI of the series had Denly, his friend and county teammate, not had a back spasm the day before the game which has now subsequently ruled him out of the series. But given the unexpected opportunity, Billings grabbed it with both hands, hitting eleven boundaries in 67 not out from just 54 balls. On a pitch which seemed to be difficult for fast scoring, Billings was the most fluent of all the batsmen on show. The innings was even more impressive given he came in at a tricky stage, with England having lost three wickets inside the first ten overs.

It was an important statement from the 29 year-old. He had dislocated a shoulder last season which ruled him out of contention for a place in the World Cup squad and he admits that his international career "hit a heavy speed bump" last year after being in and out of the team. But alongside his 87 against West Indies in a T20I in St Kitts in March 2019, this was probably his best innings in international cricket. Given the challenge Morgan had laid down, there was no better time to play it.

There is a perception of Billings that he has had a lot of chances with England over recent years without ever really taking them, leading to the conclusion that England should move on to younger players with a view to giving them experience ahead of the next World Cup. But Billings actually hasn't had that many chances in the 50-over team and when he has, it has tended to be as a fill-in, increasing the pressure on him to perform without the comfort of knowing he was going to get a run of games.

He made his international debut in 2015 but has only played 16 ODIs in that time, for instance. He has not played back to back 50 over games for England since September 2017 and indeed has only played more than two matches in a row once, during the 2015 series against New Zealand. His last ODI was more than two years ago, although he played eight T20Is last year. "It is arguably one of the toughest sports teams to get into as a fringe player at the moment," Billings said. "All I can do is take my opportunities when they arise."

Even so, an average of 22 in ODIs and 17 in T20Is are not the returns of someone who has performed so consistently for Kent and regularly played in T20 franchise tournaments around the world. Billings does, however, average more than 40 in List A cricket for Kent, most of that batting in the middle order, so he knows the job England need from him. "It's a role I really enjoy, I've done it consistently, I know how to go about it," the 29 year-old said. "It's nice to see the hard work that I have put in come to fruition.

"In the past I have come in for the odd game here or there and put way too much pressure on myself. Got away from what I have done well in the past. It's an opportunity that has come out of an unfortunate situation to one of my best mates but that's sport and at the end of the day, I have got to do what I have got to do. Prove what I can offer to this team. That's all I can do."

The time away from the game last year gave Billings a chance to take stock of his game and make a few technical tweaks. "I used to dip my hands at the bowler's release point and my head would tend to fall over and my hands, if I was out of form, would be pretty low at the point of release," he said. "Certainly, with international cricket, more pace with the bowlers, sometimes I'd get myself in a bit of a struggle getting my hands back up, certainly for the short stuff. So I just stand dead still now and the hands go straight up as opposed to that dip. It's been a minor change but I've seen a lot of positive stuff out of it."

Billings timed the ball sweetly in the first game at the Ageas Bowl and was particularly severe on anything short, using those high hands to good effect. He also played the Irish spinners nicely, reverse sweeping Simi Singh for two boundaries in the 19th over. Despite modest returns during his stints in the IPL, Billings cites his experience there as helping him advance his game against spin and believes it offers him a point of difference when compared to England's other middle order candidates, particularly given the next 50-over World Cup will be in India in 2023.

"I think that's something I can potentially offer compared to other players, my game against spin, benefitting from all the different franchise experiences I have had, but specifically the IPL and the relative success I have had on turning pitches in Chennai and Delhi," he said. "I back my game against spin. Building towards the subcontinent, whether that's the one-day formats or the longer format as well, I think it's somewhere I could potentially do well."

Once he regained his fitness, Billings scored three Championship hundreds for Kent at the end of last season and has certainly not given up hopes of a Test debut. He also thinks his best years as a batsmen are ahead of him. "It was a very disappointing year for me last year with the injury," he said. "Look at Morgs over the past couple of years, he's probably played his best cricket. I see this is actually just a starting point and I have easily my best cricket ahead of me. I have got no doubts about that. I'm not that old."