England may well have been the nation that brought professional T20 cricket to the world, when 12 counties faced off against each other on an otherwise innocuous afternoon back in 2003, but for much of the time since then it has often felt like they have been playing catch up.
There was an excellent World T20 win in 2010, but it was to be something of an anomaly rather than the start of a glorious era, with England usually found lacking in the shortest form of the game.
The combination of fixtures clashing and an inflexible ECB meant that English participation at the IPL was, a couple of notable exceptions aside, almost non-existent – adding to the feeling that T20 cricket was leaving England behind.
Now, though, things are looking much brighter for the national side, coming so close to a second World T20 title last April, only to see it bludgeoned from their grasp by Carlos Brathwaite in the last over of the final.
England’s young side, particularly as far as batting goes, has unprecedented strength in depth. With the emergence of thriving T20 franchise leagues all over the globe, English players are becoming increasingly hot property, as seen in the latest edition of Australia’s Big Bash and now here as well in the sophomore outing of the Pakistan Super League.
Eleven English players were drafted between the five franchises, from established internationals like superstar outcast Kevin Pietersen and current limited overs captain Eoin Morgan to those either currently part of or looking to establish themselves as members of England’s exciting next generation.
It might not have been a route available to them in the past, but now tournaments like the PSL have become a great asset for players – James Vince played for Karachi Kings in last year’s tournament, helping to propel him towards what was unfortunately a rather ill-fated spell in the national side.
This year is no different with current first choice players like Jason Roy and Chris Jordan looking to strengthen not only their games but also their grip on a place in England’s XI – Roy in particular making an early impression at the top of the order for Lahore Qalanders, smashing his way to a man-of-the-match award for his match-winning 60*against Islamabad United.
For those on the fringes too, the tournament offers a great opportunity, perhaps none more so for Sam Billings – the very fact he doesn't quite make it into England’s starting side embodying just what strength in batting depth they have.
Billings is a man not afraid to take the alternative route to cementing his place in England’s new era. He entered himself at the lowest possible price in last year’s IPL auction in the hope of picking up valuable experience – ultimately rewarded with a spell with Delhi Daredevils – and he was a part of Islamabad’s title-winning side last year and one of the first names they moved to re-sign this year.
For Billings the advantages of playing in the PSL are clear: “Obviously it’s a domestic tournament but actually it’s the closest thing to playing international cricket,” he said. “I got my first chance in the PSL last year and it’s fantastic.
“I get to play in different conditions and different cultures, soak its life experiences up as well. That makes me a better player, so it’s great to be here.
“For us coming over here and playing top quality spin bowling as well, it’s definitely going to help when you are going to play international cricket in the subcontinent.”
It is an opportunity that he is certainly making the most of: second in the list of top runscorers, with 122 in three games, including a sparkling 78* not out to claim the man of the match award against Quetta Gladiators. He will be sorely missed by his franchise when he departs for England duty next week.
However, Billings’ departure offers an opportunity to another man waiting in the England wings, Ben Duckett, with the Northants man hoping that after a difficult winter he can force his way back into the international fold – perhaps another future graduate from what is fast becoming England’s latest and most unlikely finishing school.
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