Billings: South Africa would be “stupid” to ignore “wake-up call”

Sam Billings believes the England Lions’ emphatic win over South Africa should be a ‘wake-up call’ for tourists and it would be ‘foolish’ to ignore the impact of an aggressive approach that has clearly trickled down on the team from the Test side put on South Africa to the sword in Kent.

The tour match lacked premier status as both sides fielded additional players while the Proteas were missing several bowlers including Anrich Nortje, Lungi Ngidi and Kasido Rabada.

South Africa have also downplayed talk of England’s rejuvenated approach, although Aiden Markram stressed the importance of not getting dragged into the game, which has been debated by the side over England’s nature.

But Billings, the Lions captain, pointed to the scale of the innings and his side’s 56-run win and fast run rate — they batted once and scored 672 runs at 5.74 and over — as evidence that South Africa must find a way to counter the same kind of aggression in the first Test at Lord’s.

“We beat an international team, whether Nortje or Rabada aren’t playing, we beat an international team over four days in one innings with 5.7 on overs,” said Billings. “You’d be pretty stupid to ignore that, if I’m being honest, if that’s not a wake-up call because we’re not even the best eleven.

“So up to you really. But I think that’s a pretty strong statement of how cricket wants to be played, but also to be able to execute it and have the players to do it.

“I think that was really impressive this week. It’s very easy to say all those things, but then it was really impressive that the players went out and actually did it, consistently too.”

MORE: South Africa wary of falling into England’s ‘Bazball’ trap

While Paul Collingwood was officially in charge of the Lions, England Test coach Brendon McCullum and general manager Rob Key were both in Canterbury throughout the game. McCullum addressed the team before the game and Billings praised the clarity of communication in the dressing room and the extra boost McCullum’s presence gave the players on the field.

“It makes a big difference of course, and Baz is great at pushing the ball hard to the limit, those little things that actually have a lot of meaning, both individually as a character and collectively,” he said. “So yeah it’s natural when these guys are watching and you know they’re not missing a trick on these two so it definitely, definitely helps when the big boss is here to watch and wanting to impress people.

“And a lot of people put their hands up to say, yeah, you know what, I really want to be on that testing team.

“It was a very consistent and clear message, which I think is one of the strengths of this new regime, or whatever you want to call it. I think the clarity it brings to everyone, regardless of where you are in the pecking order or something, there’s a clear way we want to play our cricket, what we want to do and we had it back then actually just said, building up the group, the pool of players who can easily be promoted to the first team.

“This is a really important thing. The white ball [squads] I’ve had that for the last seven years, but now it’s time to continue to build on that pool of players who can really, really rise in the same way.”

Craig Overton impressed by winning five wickets in the first innings but left the field amid a cloud of injuries on the last day as a precaution after suffering a back spasm.

But it was Ollie Robinson’s performance that will make England management particularly happy. After his lack of fitness was publicly highlighted during last winter’s Ashes, Robinson clearly responded by working hard. He bowled better as the game progressed and continued to cause problems for the South African batters, despite a fairly hard and flat field that had been repeatedly hit with the heavy roller.

“There’s a couple guys that Ollie Robinson had on toast this week,” Billings said. “He bowled exceptionally well.

“I’m also a big fan of Ollie in terms of his character on the field. How he always delivers an intensity, even if it doesn’t come across that physically. The way he approaches the game is contagious.

“And the fact that he underpinned his performance in the first innings has actually gotten better and from a pace perspective I was further behind than I was digging at first. It was proper test match bowling. I think he’s gotten stronger and stronger from a physical point of view.

“He easily got through the workload he was given and then he was out there trying to get some time on his feet.

Billings contributed 92 runs from 96 balls to the Lions’ impressive innings, but the contagious nature of the Stokes and McCullum ethos was evident throughout, particularly in the way the players seemed to shed the “foreplay nerves” that lingered over one Lions hover can pass.

Their bowlers weren’t worried about spoiling their numbers if the plan was to roll too short, and their batsmen were free to make aggressive shooting decisions without fear of being severely judged should they take their wickets costs.

The flamboyant innings of Harry Brooks (140-170) and Ben Duckett (145-168) perfectly embodied the positivity that has seeped down from the England side and it was clear throughout the game that the players were excited to be part of the English reissue to be configuration.

“Consistent messaging moves you toward danger, not away from it,” Billings said. “So take the positive option, keep trying to put pressure on the other team, absorb when we have to but then when it’s our turn to get it right… that’s the consistent message.

“In the past it’s been pretty tricky at times managing Lions teams when there’s such disparity in the group, if that makes sense.

“You have guys that are put on potential at 18 where that’s actually as close to second string as you can get, really, that was certainly a big deal, a difference I’ve had in Lions environments in the past.

“Sometimes in this Lions environment, especially when boys are missing cricket, it’s very easy to sort of assert yourself. So the most impressive thing for me overall was just the attitude and the intensity over the four days.”

At a time when The Hundred took center stage in the English summer, Billings – who has contested two of his three Tests this summer, one as a COVID-19 substitute against New Zealand and then in the Test against India – believes the Stokes-Die McCullum era has made Test cricket the most desirable format for players.

“It’s the best format again,” he added. “Like a win like today, really hard cricket on a difficult pitch is a lot more fulfilling. It’s four days of hard cricket. And yes, it’s by far the best format, especially on a team where they’re having fun, there’s clear direction, and we’re out there to entertain.

“I made the decision to play here and I felt it was really important to have that attitude not just for me personally but for the rest of the group. I think it says a lot that people want to be on this Test match team and they’re obviously missing a hundred games, but I think that pretty much says it all.

“What better opportunity to try and stake your claim on getting on this team? It’s a lot of fun to be in this environment. I for one think just being here says how much I really want to be on this team.”

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