Men’s Hundred – Oval Invincibles’ Sam Billings overcomes scepticism as tactical ‘nuances’ test captaincy

Recent Match Report - Rockets vs Invincibles 29th Match 2023

Sam Billings, Oval Invincibles’ captain, says he is a converted Hundred sceptic ahead of the men’s final at Lord’s on Sunday, and believes that the tournament’s greater focus on bowling strength has already begun to affect how sides approach their tactics across the board in English T20 cricket.

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.”

One of the key themes of the tournament has been the difficulty of opening the batting, against a swinging Kookaburra ball and a range of teams armed with potent fast bowlers. Invincibles have been as tooled up as any of the teams in that regard, not least with Gus Atkinson’s eye-catching pace earning him a maiden England call-up.

“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.

That was the case, for instance, in Birmingham Phoenix’s final match of the group stage, when New Zealand’s fast bowler Adam Milne reduced London Spirit to 3 for 3 in the first ten balls of their run-chase.

“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.”

As for whether such nuances are unique to the Hundred, however, Billings reckoned he had already seen signs of “front-loading” being carried over to the T20 Blast – most obviously with the success of Somerset in this year’s tournament, who not only lifted the title with a record 15 wins in 17 games, but also claimed a remarkable 151 out of 170 wickets across the competition.

“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.”

One of those, inevitably, will be Zampa’s fellow Australian legspinner, Nathan Sowter – one of the stories of this year’s competition after fearing this time last year that his professional career was over. “He’s a fiery little fella, and he just gives everything on the pitch. He’s a brilliant team man,” Billings said. “I’m so happy for him.”

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

Leave a Reply