England have an embarrassment of riches in white-ball cricket, but heading into the T20 World Cup, Liam Livingstone might just be the most valuable commodity for the Three Lions.
If you’re still in awe of Liam Livingstone’s century, try fathoming this - between June 2017 and June 2021 - he batted a grand total of zero times for England in the shortest format. During this period he had successful stints in different leagues across the world and scored close to 3,000 runs, yet he couldn’t get a look in. Not even once. Some will say that this is because of England’s ludicrous white-ball depth, but that is not really true.
Ben Duckett, Joe Denly, Tom Banton and Dawid Malan all donned English colours during this period, and neither of them achieved as much as Livingstone in franchise cricket. What made England overlook Livingstone for four years is something only Eoin Morgan knows, but they chose to ignore him with or without a valid reason.
What we do know after the first T20I against Pakistan, though, is that he has booked his seat on the flight to the UAE. And, perhaps, also booked his place in the starting XI come October.
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call Livingstone’s 103 on Friday the best ever T20I innings played by an English middle-order batsman. Because statistically, it is. At Trent Bridge, Livingstone not just simply scored the fastest 50 and 100 by an Englishman in T20I cricket: his 103 is the highest ever score by any batsman batting at No.5 or below in T20I history (full members), and no English batsman has ever hit as many sixes (9) in a single inning batting at lower than No.4 as Livingstone did on Friday. The Lancashire superstar made himself an indispensable asset through his showmanship, and also created history in the process of doing so.
But in the years to come, Livingstone’s ton won’t be remembered for the numbers. For it was a knock that transcended all data. It was an exhibition of power-hitting from a T20 genius that served as a reminder of the capabilities of a modern-day batsman.
When Livingstone walked in to bat with England reeling at 48/3, he had no right to do what he did. Not only were England 185 shy of their target having lost two fulcrums of the side, and were aiming to achieve a feat - chasing a total over 230 - that’d been done only twice before in T20 international history, he himself had, prior to the series, batted only four times in T20I cricket. Two of those knocks were separated by four years. And, in addition, the Pakistan bowlers also had their tails up, with the required run-rate having risen to over 12.
But Livingstone’s demon-possessed avatar cared about none of that. For 12 overs, he was an immovable object and an unstoppable force, all at once.
He made his intentions clear in just the second over he faced - smashing Haris Rauf for 16 runs off 3 balls - and kept pressing the accelerator so hard that he just ran through everything that dared to cross his path. 90 mph rockets were smashed over the fast bowlers’ head - sometimes over the wicket-keeper, with a slice of luck - at twice the speed, and long-hops, full-tosses and moon-balls were pulverized and dispatched into the mid-wicket boundary with disdain.
Fielders were made to run for their life, as were the non-strikers: 26 of his runs came singles and doubles. For an hour and a half, Livingstone gave the fans at Trent Bridge a high they would have never experienced in their life. No wonder skipper Eoin Morgan described it as good a T20 knock he’s ever seen anyone play.
“It was an incredible knock (from Liam Livingstone). Over the last six years as a group, our changing room has sat back and watched so many incredible knocks from Buttler, Roy, Ali. That knock today was as good as any of them. He was incredible,” Morgan said at the end of the game.
The only blemish about Livingstone’s knock on Friday was that he did not take the side over the line, particularly with victory, at one point, insight. But as Morgan himself admitted post the game, the sheer fact that England got within touching distance of 233 - all thanks to Livingstone, who scored 51% of the team’s runs - despite being reduced to 48/3 inside the powerplay (and despite missing Buttler, Stokes and Curran) is a huge positive that should serve as a warning sign for all sides come the World T20.
In many ways, you wonder if the outcome on Friday could ultimately end up doing more good for England, in the long run, than, say, a regulation win enabled by their big guns. Livingstone making the step up and coming of age at the international level bodes well for the side not just because he is an x-factor and a match-winner who could turn matches on its head, but also for other pivotal reasons.
England’s middle-order in the five-match series against India reeked of one-dimensionality, with four of the five middle-order batters (from 3 to 7 ) being left-handed. India exploited this one-dimensionality by making their pacers take the ball away from the left-hander by bowling slow off-cutters, and it was a ploy for which the Three Lions had no answers to. Primarily because they had no weapons to tackle it. Now, in the form of the right-handed Livingstone, they have one.
Not only will the Lancashire man add more versatility to England’s middle-order and enable them to be flexible in terms of batting combinations, but he will also, in all fairness, as he showed on Friday, make the side even more dangerous and explosive. Since the start of 2018, in non-international T20 matches, only AB de Villiers (1.8), Chris Gayle (1.93) and Andre Russell (2.14) have hit more sixes per match on average than Livingstone (1.72) among batters who’ve scored 2,500 or more runs in the said time-frame.
What makes Livingstone less of a Russell and more of a de Villiers, though, is his level-headedness; the batting duality. Only two knocks before the sizzling ton he hit at Trent Bridge, Livingstone dragged England out of a hole against the Lankans. Chasing 112, the Three Lions were reeling at 36/4 in the 7th over, and were in serious danger of slipping to one of their most embarrassing defeats of all time. The occasion could so easily have gotten to Livingstone, given the fact that he was playing his first T20I in four years, but the Lancashire man stayed put and played risk-free cricket - taking 1s and 2s by milking the spinners - to steer the side home.
Such was Livingstone’s unshakable self-control that night, he hit a solitary boundary - a ramp towards fine-leg off Chameera - in his 26-ball stay in the middle. He remained unbeaten as Sam Curran hit the winning runs, and helped turn an uncomfortable position into a regulation win. Given the explosive nature of those who bat above him in the order, Livingstone could find himself in similar positions in many a game in the future.
His ability to bowl valuable overs of spin - both off and leg - and his dexterity against the slower bowlers with the bat are also two factors that will work in his favour come the World T20. Through stints in the PSL, BBL and MSL, Livingstone has taken his skill level against spin bowlers to the next level, and the same was visible on Friday, where he took 47 runs off the 17 balls he faced against Shadab Khan and Imad Wasim. In fact, since his T20I comeback against Sri Lanka last month, Livingstone has struck at 179.4 against spinners, while being dismissed just once.
That Livingstone has now steered well ahead of Sam Billings goes without saying, but he could potentially be now vying for Dawid Malan’s spot. Not only is he already a better player of spin than Malan, but he also is more flexible (can bat anywhere between 1 to 7 ) and fits into the ‘Morgan ideology’ better due to his uncanny ability to go berserk from ball one. This English side takes pride in counter-attacking, and Livingstone, on Friday, produced the mother of all counter-attacks: coming in at 48/3, he blasted 40 off his first 14 balls.
2021 has been a year of checking boxes for Livingstone. The first box that needed checking was finding his way back into the national set-up, and he did so by playing the ODI series against India. Next, it was to find his way back in the T20I set-up, and he achieved that by playing the entirety of the Sri Lanka series. The most important box that needed checking was making his way into the World T20 squad, and Friday’s knock, you suspect, has taken care of it. Finding a place in the starting XI in the World T20 is quite an ambitious box, but if the first T20I in Trent Bridge is anything to go by, then there is no reason why Livingstone cannot check that too.