When the Indian Premier League began in 2008, Sam Billings was still three years away from making his first-class debut. So, when Billings says things like, “watching the IPL growing up, it’s always been a dream to play here” – completely oblivious to the fact that this simple statement could remind some people uncomfortably of their vintage – he’s not merely articulating a straightforward truth, he’s also stating a fact that will become more and more true as the years go on, and the IPL – and some of us – gather years.
Billings, impossibly fresh-faced and only 24, is one of Delhi Daredevils’ bright young signings for IPL 2016. Along with the talent to have a long career, as rightly identified by the Delhi auction scouts, he also appears to have the rare gift of a wise head on young shoulders.
Billings came into this edition fully prepared to not get a game – since Delhi had the likes of JP Duminy, Chris Morris, Quinton de Kock, Carlos Brathwaite and Imran Tahir in their ranks. Unexpectedly, with Duminy taking ill, he was given a game against Kolkata Knight Riders and smashed 54 off 34 balls in a rollicking debut that gave Delhi a fourth win in six matches so far.
Ahead of their next match against Gujarat Lions in Rajkot on Tuesday (May 3), Billings opened up to mediapersons on the IPL experience, the mentoring philosophy of Rahul Dravid and Paddy Upton, team dynamics, and even those four sixes that Brathwaite hit off Ben Stokes to snatch the World Twenty20 away from England. Excerpts:
“Dravid is just a great human being to talk to, and I feel him and Paddy have created an environment where – obviously we have got a lot of young, pretty inexperienced players as well – they are made to feel as if they can just go out and express themselves. Especially as a young international player from overseas, to have an environment to come into where there is great for confidence yourself to go out and play your natural game is invaluable.”
How would you describe your IPL experience so far?
It’s my first IPL. It has always been a dream to play here. Growing up you watch the IPL. There is a massive focus on the IPL in England and it’s probably the leading global T20 franchise competition. It is a pleasure to be here and to get an opportunity. Obviously it went well and the team won, but just to get an opportunity was fantastic.
How is the atmosphere in Delhi compared to county cricket or the Pakistan Super League, where you played before coming here?
I think the PSL was brilliant for me as it was my first opportunity in franchise cricket. So it’s kind of nice going into the IPL not cold as such. And it helps that Islamabad won the PSL. Hopefully, I’ve brought some luck for Delhi Daredevils. The IPL is different in a lot of ways I suppose. The biggest difference is, cricket over here is an undying passion, it’s the No. 1 sport. When we left from the hotel (to arrive at the ground for training), we got hundreds of people around the bus, which is unheard of. It is a bit different in county cricket at the moment, when it’s snowing! It is a great opportunity to experience different cultures, different ways of playing cricket, playing spin. A lot of the time, English players have been said to play spin poorly. For me, that’s a massive part of my game – to improve my game against spin, working with one of the best players ever to play the game in Rahul Dravid. If you don’t pick his brains and not learn from him on a day-to-day basis, you would be stupid not to.
Could you elaborate on the specific technical aspects of the game Dravid or Upton have helped you out with?
Rahul hasn’t necessarily been a whole lot technical. He says obviously to play international cricket you have to have some sort of sound technique. It’s more to have that mental robustness to be able to bat for long periods of time, to read that game. When you have got to sit in for a little bit, and when to attack. So it’s more picking his brains about the tempo in the innings, especially in four-day cricket as well.
He is just a great human being to talk to, and I feel him and Paddy have created an environment where – obviously we have got a lot of young, pretty inexperienced players as well – they are made to feel as if they can just go out and express themselves. Especially as a young international player from overseas, to have an environment to come into where there is great for confidence yourself to go out and play your natural game is invaluable. For example, he told me if I focus on the on-drive – because if I am batting well, that will be going well, hitting nice and straight and the balance would be good. He said, “That’s really good but why not try batting at the other end with the bowler’s footmarks and have exactly the same shots. Every single detail of your technique has to be under scrutiny otherwise you are not going to hit the ball.”
Especially against the spinners, your footwork has to be so good. In England, South Africa and Australia it doesn’t necessarily spin a great deal. You can get away with no footwork and your hands can do most of the work. Out here, your footwork has to be spot on, otherwise you will be back in the change room pretty quickly. The specific focus is getting right up to (the pitch of) the ball and right back. I think the perfect example the other day was how Karun Nair played (against Kolkata). His footwork was unbelievable – batting from the other end you are not just learning from Rahul, you are learning from these other local Indian players. You can get so much from that.
Your performance seems to have given Delhi a pleasant headache. How do you decide which of the overseas players to pick? How is the news broken to those not picked?
That’s a great question, but I think the way the squad is at the moment you see (in) different games we have played different combinations more or less every game. We got a team and squad in good form – every single one of them, even the ones who haven’t played a game yet. So, I think, in terms of that the environment is such a good one that there is no animosity towards anyone. If I have to sit out, I have to sit out but it won’t change my preparation or the other guys’ preparation. You have got to be ready, you never know when someone goes down sick or picks up an injury in the warm-up. That is one of the things in this competition – the strongest squad will win the competition and not necessarily the strongest team. If we continue the way we are going I think we will have a good chance.
“There’s friendly rivalries and everyone wants to kind of keep improving to get ahead of the next guy. Because, ultimately, this is a world stage. You impress here, you impress for your national team – both as a local Indian guy but also as an overseas guy. I’ve spent a lot of time with Karun Nair and Sanju Samson off the field and get on very well with both those guys. And obviously when running between the wickets you need that kind of understanding. You build friendships. Ultimately, you play this game for 15 years and you want to have friends all over the world at the end of it.”
How do you ensure that a dressing room as varied, with players of different types and nationalities, gels well and communicates well in the middle?
I’ve come into this IPL with a very open mind. I always thought I might not play a game, but out of the six weeks I’m here, it will be impossible not to improve as a player as long as I’ve got the right work ethic.
Learning from JP Duminy, who I have watched for years growing up, he has a similar role as well batting in the middle order. You learn from Chris Morris how to hit the ball out of the park, Carlos Brathwaite … and also talking to guys like Amit Mishra and how he thinks he’s going to get me out, and improve your game. We’re constantly talking as a squad, and it’s a very hungry group of players. It helps being a pretty young group, I think, so everyone’s looking to prove something. There’s friendly rivalries and everyone wants to kind of keep improving to get ahead of the next guy. Because ultimately this is a world stage. You impress here, you impress for your national team – both as a local Indian guy but also as an overseas guy. I’ve spent a lot of time with Karun Nair and Sanju Samson off the field and get on very well with both those guys. And obviously when running between the wickets you need that kind of understanding. You build friendships. Ultimately, you play this game for 15 years and you want to have friends all over the world at the end of it.
Have you ever asked Carlos Brathwaite about those four sixes off Ben Stokes?
(Laughs) I knew somebody was going to ask me that! We play Fifa (on the Playstation) in our hotel room so every now and then that ‘Champion’ dance comes out when he wins. Not against me, but against Karun! Yeah, I think it’s not really spoken about. We’ve had that conversation and I think he’s such a good guy, he wants to progress his career even more. He said, “Yeah that was great”, but he wants to go one step further and do it consistently. We saw the other day how lethal he is and if he can be one of the most consistent strikers of the cricket ball around the world, it’s only good for West Indies. Not much good for England in the future – or India, for that matter.
Were you always a very good player of spin bowling?
I enjoy the challenge of facing spin. It’s an art really, isn’t it? Like the seaming ball in England. It’s an art that you have to try and master. I think watching the best players of spin around the world definitely helps. Seeing the different options they take, you look at AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli for instance, two people I look up to massively. You watch both of those guys, they sweep well, they use their feet incredibly well, and they can put the other bowler under pressure consistently. That’s the key thing. Whether you are hitting one or hitting four, you’ve got to have that intent, especially in the shorter formats of the game. It’s just so a bowler can’t settle into a rhythm. It’s no different to a guy who’s bowling well with the seaming ball. There has to be some pressure put back on the bowler – otherwise, it’s inevitable what will happen.
But again, like I said, it’s something I’ve worked hard on. The last three weeks have been a massive focus for a lot of us. We’ve had little group sessions. We’ve got a second ground in Delhi where we have three players every day that go out and practice against spin. We have net bowlers and some of our spinners come and bowl. And because there’s only three of you, you have as much time as you need and want essentially. So it’s brilliant.
“I enjoy the challenge of facing spin. It’s an art really, isn’t it? Like the seaming ball in England. It’s an art that you have to try and master. I think watching the best players of spin around the world definitely helps. Seeing the different options they take, you look at AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli for instance, two people I look up to massively. You watch both of those guys, they sweep well, they use their feet incredibly well, and they can put the other bowler under pressure consistently. That’s the key thing.”
Dravid and Upton have a lot of one-on-one sessions with the young players. What is the kind of input you get from those sessions?
It’s about getting to know you as a player, what makes you tick. Obviously in this environment with a lot of new faces, they don’t necessarily know you as a bloke. But it’s about getting to build that relationship, which will obviously help on the field. As a player, you want to be in the right mental space to go out and perform. That’s what it is really. I know it sounds simple, but it’s really not more complex than that. Just talking really. It’s amazing what a chat can do in terms of changing your frame of mind, whether it’s on a technical issue, or even a mental issue about the game.
Zaheer as a captain has been one of the understated reasons for Delhi’s good run. What have you picked up from watching him?
Yeah, he’s been fantastic. From the batting point of view, the massive thing about him is, when I was batting, he set a field to me with (Mohammed) Shami and one of the young guys bowling yorkers. Just the way he set that field was totally out of the box. There was no long-on, he moved round to cow corner because he knew I was just a filthy slogger anyway (laughs). As a batsman, you don’t necessarily know that he’s going to bowl a yorker with that field. He can bowl a bumper, he can bowl a slower ball. So it puts the pressure back on you as a batter because where you want to be as a batter is knowing exactly where the bowler is going to bowl. It makes it easier if you’re one step ahead and all the best players do that. I keep talking of de Villiers, but that’s the prime example. When he sweeps or goes over extra cover, seemingly he knows what the bowler is going to bowl. That’s half the battle won. Zaheer is kind of turning the tables a bit and actually giving the bowlers more options and keeping the batsmen guessing.