Ashes: Sam Billings set for Fifth Test chance as England’s wicketkeeper merry-go-round continues

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·4-min read
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  • Jos Buttler
    Jos Buttler
    English cricketer
  • Jonny Bairstow
    Jonny Bairstow
    English cricketer (born 1989)
  • James Bracey
    Cricketer (born 1997)
  • Ollie Pope
    Cricketer (born 1998)
  • Ben Foakes
    Cricketer (born 1993)
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Since Chris Silverwood took over as England head coach in 2019, 28 Tests ago, Jos Buttler has been the preferred wicketkeeper.

But England have used five wicketkeepers in that time, for various reasons. Ollie Pope (one Test due to Buttler’s injury), Ben Foakes (three Tests due to Buttler’s rotation), James Bracey (two Tests due to Buttler’s rest), and Jonny Bairstow (one Test due to Buttler’s paternity leave) have all had a go.

This week in Hobart, that number is likely to swell to six, if Sam Billings is handed a debut.

Billings was in two Test squads in the summer and, despite some badly-timed injuries hampering his white-ball career with England, has been the beneficiary of some good fortune this time.

Buttler and Bairstow both have hand injuries (the latter could play in Hobart, but will not be able to keep wicket). Pope proved an able stand-in for a day in Sydney, but his future is as a batter.

Foakes and Bracey (another whose future should be seen as a batter) went home with the England Lions before Christmas (a decision bemoaned by some, but absolutely correct around the festive season and in the era of Covid restrictions). Jamie Smith, another keeper ahead of Pope in the queue at Surrey, was also with the Lions.

Billings has been performing well for Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash, and received the call from England after the injury Buttler but before Bairstow’s. The second injury made the decision a simpler one. He was due, a couple of hours later, to fly home with Saqib Mahmood to prepare for the T20 tour to Barbados, but was soon careering nine hours down Australia’s East Coast in a rented Honda Civic with seven bags in the boot, accumulated from four months on tour since September. He will travel to the Caribbean when his Test duties are complete.

It is unfortunate that Buttler, a good friend of Billings, misses out with injury, but it would be sensible to put a full stop on a curious Test career now. He has played 57 times, and it has never quite worked for a sustained period. Overall, though he has been serviceable: a batter who has flickered, never quite developing a method across 100 innings; a tidy wicketkeeper lacking some presence.

This is a sad end. Despite digging in hard in Adelaide and some fine catches, the abiding memories will be negative: shelling Marnus Labuschagne, the week he went top of the rankings; treading on his stumps after his epic rearguard; that awful shot on Boxing Day.

And so it was in Sydney, where he did well to survive 10 overs after a pain-killing injection on a finger break described by Joe Root as “quite serious”. It is easy to see why England have invested so much time in Buttler, but now is time to move on.

It would seem sensible for the Foakes era to begin when England play West Indies in March. He is 29 next month, and has waited long enough for the proper run his talent deserves. He cannot live up to the expectations of his strongest supporters, but he will keep beautifully, and bat well.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

But first, Billings has a chance to make himself part of the conversation. His red-ball record does not immediately stand out; he averages 34 in first-class cricket, and has played just 19 games since being Kent captain in 2018. In many of those, he has allowed Ollie Robinson – the other one – to keep.

But Billings is worthy of closer inspection. In so many ways, he is a very modern cricketer, and he has found himself with some very modern problems. Breaking through in white-ball cricket seven years ago, he was encouraged by the ECB – from whom he has never received a contract – to pursue opportunities in T20 leagues.

This, combined with his regular mixing of cordial for the national team and those injuries, have limited his first-class opportunities. When they have been on offer, he has foregone rest to play (part of a wider pattern in which he has been one of the game’s great Yes Men). In the past three seasons, he averages 45 with the bat, including three centuries.

Given half his games are at Canterbury, where things are set up for the demon Darren Stevens, that is not bad at all.

Billings will bring a can-do attitude and a smile to the Test scene, as well as no fear of the Australians (he has an ODI century against Pat Cummins et al). That is not everything, but it is not nothing, either.

If this week goes well, it is not inconceivable, whether as a middle-order batter or a wicketkeeper, that he could have a four-year Test career. A complicated debate could just about to get a little more complicated.

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