As if England were not already rammed with batting options in their T20I squad, the recall of Liam Livingstone for this week’s five-match series in India is a further reminder to the incumbents to take nothing for granted in the lead-up to November’s T20 World Cup.
Livingstone may not have played for England since an ill-starred pair of T20Is against South Africa in 2017. But, with England making a point of selecting their strongest available squad for a series that may replicate the conditions that they face at the World Cup seven months from now, it’s clear that his time, at the age of 27, may finally be drawing nigh.
“For the first time in my career I feel like I belong in this environment and it’s good to be back,” Livingstone said. “I was pretty immature before and I’m a much different person now, and even more so as a player.”
Livingstone’s recent exploits in Australia’s Big Bash League (BBL) provide strong evidence that he’s ready to make the step back up. Opening the batting for the Perth Scorchers, his haul of 426 runs not only eclipsed that of his partner and potential rival for an England berth, Jason Roy, it also included an impressive 28 sixes – the second-most in the competition.
His finest hour came in the Challenger against Brisbane Heat, where he powered his side to victory with a blistering knock of 77 from 39 balls, and though the Sydney Sixers outgunned them in the final two days later, he still kept the Scorchers on track in the early stages of their run-chase with 45 from 35 balls.
Livingstone’s form in the PSL and Mzanzi Super League has been equally eye-catching in recent seasons, and it was telling that despite a significant roster of England players on the books at Rajasthan Royals, he was also re-signed by the franchise for next month’s IPL. All the signs point to a player who is both confident in his own game, and has the confidence of those around him.
“The Big Bash is such an exciting competition,” Livingstone said. “That’s the reason we play these franchise competitions. Playing in the IPL in front of 60,000 people, and playing in a Big Bash final. These are the pressure moments you start to get used to. We get Roses games in England [Lancashire vs Yorkshire] which are close to international cricket. But playing in a Big Bash final is as close as we’ll get around the world to international cricket. Hopefully, that will stand me in good stead.”
He was hardly alone in starring among England’s exports at the BBL. James Vince and England’s current cause célèbre, Alex Hales, both outdid him in the runs stakes with 543 and 537 respectively, but Livingstone’s versatility as a spin bowler was a significant factor in his leapfrogging of both in the India tour party – not least due to his burgeoning ability to switch between offspin and legspin depending on the technique of the batsman in his sights.
“It’s something I really enjoy and spend a lot of time on,” he said. “It helps playing at Old Trafford as spin in white-ball cricket is such a massive part of the game there. It’s something I’m continuing to work on and it adds another string to my bow. Hopefully in the next couple of years I can try to turn myself into a genuine allrounder.”
His recent record underlines that versatility. In Lancashire’s run to the Blast finals day, Livingstone was a regular front-line option, claiming nine wickets in the competition at 21.22, and at an impressive economy rate of 7.53. In the BBL, he was a more targeted option, with isolated overs here and there but similarly impactful returns – five wickets in a total of 60 balls across the 14 matches, at a cost of 85 runs all told.
“I’ve worked really hard for this exact moment,” he said, “to try and make me a little bit more selectable. It takes a bit of pressure off, because being able to do all three things in the game at the moment is massive. I’ll continue to develop my bowling, and my fielding, and my batting as well, and enjoy the challenge of getting better at all three.”
That string alone may not be sufficient to break into England’s power-packed batting line-up, where Roy, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow have, in recent times, been joined by Dawid Malan as near-automatic picks. Throw in Ben Stokes and Eoin Morgan in the middle order, not to mention the returning Moeen Ali and the finishing abilities of Sam Billings, and Livingstone concedes he may yet have to bide his time.
Nevertheless, he says, the experience of the franchise circuit has taught him that simply being in the company of the great and the good of the game can help improve one’s own performances.
“It was great to have a couple of English blokes [at the BBL], especially Jase, there,” he said. “Just being able to train alongside them, to travel to games on the same bus, being able to sit at dinner and chat cricket. Learn how they go about things on and off the field, I guess it is an experience we wouldn’t have got ten years ago,
“As a pretty inexperienced cricketer, it has been pretty cool to spend time with these guys. At the IPL, you get to spend an extended period with the likes of Jos and Ben. That’s the great thing about franchise cricket – the amount of different people you play with.
“I’ve played in an IPL, I’ve played in two Big Bashes and I’ve spent time in South Africa as well as Pakistan. In three months I spent time around Babar Azam and then went straight into the IPL where we had Steve Smith.
“Being around those players and seeing how they go about their stuff, as a young boy as I was then and quite inexperienced, it’s great to learn off. Franchise cricket is a great way to learn, especially when you’re not playing international cricket, so we’re very lucky to get these opportunities to go and play in these competitions and they’re great for developing your game and you as a person.”
Livingstone’s own development has continued on the home front in recent seasons too, including a short-lived stint as Lancashire’s captain in 2018 – an experience he says he wouldn’t rule out doing again in the future, but not until much later in his career.
But, he concedes, perhaps the steepest learning experience of all was his first England series four years ago. In a pair of skittish innings, he made 16 from 18 on T20I debut at Taunton, then a first-ball duck two days later in Cardiff, as he reversed his stance and was bowled by a Dane Paterson full toss. And despite a surprise call-up for England’s Test squad in New Zealand in the spring of 2018, he feels this recall is the one that he’s truly ready for.
“I was probably in the worst place I could have been in cricket-wise when I played those couple of games,” he said. “I tried to make a change in my technique two or three weeks before and it completely didn’t work for me.
“Ultimately, looking back, it was a really steep learning curve for me and I guess it probably did me some good in the next couple of years. It gave me a kick up the backside and made me work harder.
“Like I said, I’m a completely different person and player and confident in my game. It’s nice to be back in this environment and feel like I belong. If I get an opportunity, I’m sure things will be much different this time around.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket