With six wins and a tie from their eight group games, Invincibles have been this season’s outstanding side – a fact that Billings admitted had been a factor in his heightened appreciation of the competition. As a captain, however, he feels his game has progressed significantly in the course of this campaign, due to the format’s subtle nuances – in particular, the prospect of “instant feedback” for any given decision in the field.
“Of course it helps when we’re playing really well,” Billings said. “But it’s definitely felt different this year.
“I’ll be honest, it’s taken a while for me to really invest myself into the format. I was sceptical, like a lot of people in the first year. But I’ve loved the format actually. It’s gone from strength to strength, and the quality of cricket this year has been as high a level as I’ve seen in this country.”
“I know people are sceptical of the speed-guns at times, but that’s as quick as I’ve kept to in a very long time,” Billings said, recalling Atkinson’s display against Manchester Originals in the week of the England squad announcement, in which he was clocked at 95mph/153kph. “I was [standing] miles back. I’m still spewing about the five byes that went over my head that should have been wides, but it really is proper pace. And we know that in any format of the game, ball speeds make a huge amount of difference. That’s a huge asset, not only in England, but everywhere around the world now.”
The key difference between the Hundred and conventional T20 cricket is, of course, the use of sets of five balls rather than six. On the one hand, these can allow bowlers an early escape from punishment in the event of an unfavourable match-up, but it also allows the pressure to be maintained through back-to-back blocks of ten balls when any given batting line-up is put under pressure.
“It definitely has brought bowlers back into game because, as a batsman, you can get stuck,” Billings said. “If you’re really struggling, you get stuck down one end, and if you stink up ten balls, that’s a tenth of the innings.
“There’s definitely different challenges, different rhythms to the game, and it’s way faster as captain, so it has definitely progressed my captaincy. You’ve got to make quicker decisions. And you get instant feedback from those five balls. Then you change ends, and you’ve got to really think on your feet. So I can’t say anything but positive things about the cricket this year.”
“In terms of making decisions, whether it’s with the data behind it or your gut feel, it definitely does develop you as a captain,” Billings said. “Somerset did it brilliantly this year in the Blast with Craig Overton and Matt Henry bowling in that powerplay and breaking the game wide open by taking wickets.
“We’re seeing a lot more front-loading in terms of pace bowlers. If someone’s bowling really well, you’re worrying about saving two or three at the death. If it’s going right, you want to get your best bowler on, try and get their best players out, and then if we have to bowl an over of spin at the end, then so be it.”
One of those spinners who Billings was able to trust at the death was Australia’s Adam Zampa, who did for Trent Rockets’ Colin Munro at a crucial juncture of their five-wicket victory at The Oval, but who will be missing – along with the left-arm quick Spencer Johnson – following his call-up to Australia’s ODI squad in South Africa.
“It’s a shame, but that’s just one of the challenges that directors of cricket face,” Billings said. “There’s just so much cricket on that you can’t get everyone available for blocks nowadays. But it’s brilliant in terms of opportunities that it will provide for one of the guys who have got us to the final.”
However, Billings acknowledged that, when it comes to big-game players, there are few in his team with a more proven record than Sam Curran. He was the player of the match and tournament when England won the T20 World Cup in Australia last November, and with another big final looming, his captain backed him to come good once again.
“It’s pretty much ingrained in him,” Billings said. “For such a young player, he’s got a huge amount of evidence behind him to suggest that he is that big-game player and does it consistently.
“He’s a huge asset to have on your side, character-wise and off the pitch, regardless of how on the pitch he’s going. He’s someone I’d have on my side every single day of the week.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket