Life as an understudy isn’t easy.
Consider the example of Jimmie Nicol. Nicol, it might be remembered, was a Beatle for about 10 days in 1964. With Ringo Starr suffering from tonsillitis, Nicol, an accomplished session drummer, was drafted in to ensure the band fulfilled a raft of touring commitments. By all accounts he acquitted himself very well, too.
But it was never going to make any difference. After eight shows, a revitalised Starr returned. Nicol faded into the background with only an inscribed gold watch to convince sceptics in the pub of the days when he was fab.
Time will tell whether the same thing happens with Sam Billings. Billings batted beautifully for a while on Friday night. He not only recorded his maiden international century but, for a while, took apart Pat Cummins – the world’s No. 1 ranked Test bowler at present – in thrashing him for 39 from just 22 balls.
And while England fell 19 runs short, the sense remained that, had a couple of the other batsmen been able to stay with Billings just a little longer, he might have pulled off something really quite incredible. He, at least, believes he had Australia rattled at one point.
There were moments in Billings innings it seemed an uneven contest. At one end, Jonny Bairstow was being beaten like a snare drum; at the other Billings had 11 from 32 balls. “They reminded me I was 11 off 32 pretty consistently,” he said of Australia’s fielders. England were light years behind on the comparative run rate.
“At that point in time we had zero chance,” Billings said. “I felt terrible as well. I wasn’t fluent at all. But then you look at the other end and Jonny is struggling as well and he’s one of the most fluent openers in world cricket. No one really got going.
“But you could see Australia’s mindset definitely change when we started to get that partnership going. The energy all of a sudden went from very positive to just a slight more intensity and thinking that we are getting ourselves back into the game.
“Who knows, if Jonny and I had batted for another five overs; if Moeen Ali and I could have got a bit of a partnership together… Yes, it was a huge ask. But in that situation it’s a matter of trying to take the game deep and give us some sort of chance.”
Despite the result, Billings demonstrated many of the attributes England are looking for in their players. For a start, he was resilient. From a position of near hopelessness – chasing what would have been a record total to win an ODI at Emirates Old Trafford, England limped to 22 for 2 after 10 overs, their lowest score at that stage of a home ODI since 2006 – he took the game into the final over.
Secondly, he was adaptable. After soaking up pressure towards the start of his innings, he showed an ability to accelerate and damage opposition that underlined the impression he could enjoy a decent career at this level. Anyone who can straight drive and ramp Mitchell Starc, who is probably within the best half-dozen or so middle-overs bowlers in the history of this format, can really play. He’s a decent player of spin and one of England’s bravest and most athletic fielders, too. There’s a lot to like.
But Billings’ problem – and it really is a two-pipe problem, as Sherlock Holmes might have put it – is that he’s the stand-in for Ben Stokes. And that’s an issue, as Stokes might just be the finest cricketer England have had this century. So just as Dawid Malan is struggling to displace Jonny Bairstow or Jason Roy, so Billings isn’t going to force his way into this side – any side – ahead of Stokes. And he’s not going to force his way in ahead of Jos Buttler or Eoin Morgan, either.
But he could force his way into the T20 or even the Test side. With Buttler set to bat at the top of the order in the shorter format, there might just be a vacancy as a floating middle-order batsman alongside Morgan and Stokes. And with two T20 World Cups – in theory, at least – to be staged in the next couple of years, it seems a worthy aim.
The role of middle-order T20 batsman is desperately tough to nail down. You have, in essence, very few balls in which to impress and almost no opportunity to play yourself in. So it’s maximum risk for, on a personal level, minimum reward. Billings’ statistics demonstrate this: he’s played 30 T20Is and faced more than 25 balls in an innings only once. The other 24 times he has either not batted at all or faced 11 deliveries or fewer.
“Ben Stokes isn’t here and I don’t think, however many runs I get, that I’ll keep that spot,” Billings said of his ODI role. “All I can do is stake a claim. Especially building towards the T20 stuff. There is a slot in that late-to-middle order. Hopefully this will keep pushing my case in that format. [Loss of] form and injury – as I found out the hard way – can happen. As long as you are putting yourself in the right position to be the next cab off the rank, you never know when these opportunities will arise.”
The “hard way”, as he puts it, came last year. After an excellent innings of 87 in a T20I in St Kitts, Billings looked well-placed to be the reserve batsman in the World Cup squad. But then he sustained a serious shoulder injury which ruled him out and saw James Vince selected instead. Vince not only played in three games but was on the pitch (as substitute for Mark Wood) for one of the most dramatic moments in the history of English cricket, that Lord’s Super Over. Now aged 29, the sense that time may be running out must be gnawing Billings harder than ever.
“Last year was easily the toughest of my career,” Billings said. “Missing out on the World Cup squad and that whole experience. It was a really tough experience [but] I’ve stayed pretty philosophical about it. The white-ball batting depth at the moment in this country is pretty phenomenal. Of course it’s frustrating.
“But Joe Root said to me yesterday, the amount of cricket I’ve played, I’m more like a 26-year-old. Dan Lawrence is six years younger than me, but has played more first-class cricket than I have. I’m still improving as last night showed.
“I’m in a really good place with my technique that could obviously transform to the longer form of the game as well. Ollie Pope is out [injured] for a little while and that middle order spot [in the Test team] might be vacant.”
Indeed, it might. So perhaps, if Billings can repeat such performances, he will look back on this period not so much as an understudy but as an apprenticeship. The best could still be ahead of him.
Sergey Lipinets vs. Custio Clayton: Fight prediction, card, preview, how to watch, Showtime Boxing
A change of opponents and a postponed fighting date haven’t slowed down former 140-pound champion Sergey Lipinets’ hopes of winning a world title in a second weight class.
After constant visa issues forced unbeaten Kudratillo Abdukakhorov to postpone and eventually pull out of his original date against Lipinets (16-1, 12 KOs), the all-action native of Kazakhstan will now face Canada’s Custio Clayton (18-0, 12 KOs) on Saturday in the main event of a Showtime Boxing: Special Edition card (9 p.m. ET) from the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut.
The interim IBF welterweight title bout will make the winner the mandatory challenger for Errol Spence Jr.’s title. Spence, who has been off for more than a year due to both the coronavirus pandemic and a scary car crash, returns on Dec. 5 in a pay-per-view clash with former champion Danny Garcia.
The 31-year-old Lipinets is riding a three-fight win streak, which includes a fight-of-the-year contender against Lamont Peterson, following the lone defeat of his career when he lost his IBF junior welterweight title to Mikey Garcia in 2018.
The change in opponent didn’t come as a complete shock to Lipinets who, after being made aware of Abdukakhorov’s potential issues, was given Clayton’s name as a potential replacement. That allowed Lipinets and trainer Joe Goossen enough time to alter their game plan for this weekend.
“It was really all about Joe putting pieces together for my style no matter who we were going to face,” Lipinets said during Thursday’s virtual press conference. “People might not think it, but I can box and move around the ring well. Joe has added elements to it that made it a more fluid style.”
Clayton, a 33-year-old former Olympian nicknamed “War Machine,” said he greatly benefited from the five-week notice that the fight was a possibility and believes he has the style to perfectly contrast Lipinets’ aggression.
“Most people look at me as an aggressive fighter, as well. I always like to bang, but I think you are going to see a different side to me,” Clayton said. “I think my boxing ability is going to be the biggest factor in this fight. It’s just that nobody has seen it yet. That will be the big key. People don’t understand how smart I am. I don’t look at the size. I’m prepared for whatever.”
Regardless of what’s at stake should he be victorious, Lipinets vows to give Clayton the full respect he deserves once they step into the ring.
“I don’t look past Clayton. I have to win that fight and I’m 100% focused on him,” Lipinets said. “But I do believe that I belong on the level with Errol Spence Jr. and the other elite welterweights. I think I’ve shown that my whole career. Before I can look at a fight against Spence or Danny Garcia, I have to win on Saturday.”
- Sergey Lipinets vs. Custio Clayton, welterweights
- Xavier Martinez vs. Claudio Marrero, super featherweights
- Malik Hawkins vs. Subriel Matias, junior welterweights
The most glaring difference between the two fighters is Clayton’s lack of experience against elite competition. Not only has Clayton never fought professionally outside of his native Canada, he has never faced someone with the combination of skill and relentlessness that has become Lipinets’ calling card.
Expect Lipinets’ educated pressure to swallow Clayton up as the rounds advance. He lands accurate and powerful combinations in close and has a chin to withstand the firepower in return, even as a smaller welterweight.
Pick: Lipinets via unanimous decision
‘It’s nice to feel important’
Six weeks into IPL 2020, Chris Morris has been hailed as the change Royal Challengers Bangalore needed. He provides spark with the new ball, cleans up lower orders at the death, gives them an imposing presence on the field with his rocket arm, and brings with him the potential to be a finisher. To understand why he has been such a key part of the jigsaw, let us rewind to December 2019.
It is the build-up to the mini-auction in Kolkata. The Royal Challengers want Morris at any cost. At each of their mock auctions, the price for him has shot through the roof. However, Mike Hesson, the director of cricket, keeps going. It isn’t out of desperation, but because of their innate belief on an X-factor player.
Forget about having someone of the skillsets Morris has – 140kph plus, can turn up at the death and nail yorkers, besides hitting big from the outset. The Royal Challengers have struggled to just have a consistent allrounder in their set up. In 2016 and 2017, they had Shane Watson. Then in 2018 and 2019, they had Marcus Stoinis. Neither thrived, for a variety of factors – not least being the chop-and-change policy they’ve since shelved for consistency. Kolkata Knight Riders have Andre Russell. Mumbai Indians have Kieron Pollard. Chennai Super Kings have Dwayne Bravo. There’s a reason the Royal Challengers want him.
On auction day, the Royal Challengers enter the bidding at INR 1.7 crore, and go right through to the end. They even discuss among themselves the prospect of placing a next bid after raising the paddle at INR 10 crore. Mumbai Indians back out, Hesson and Katich quietly celebrate. They’ve got their man.
Fast-forward to September 2020. Royal Challengers have just finished their mandatory quarantine, and are training at the ICC Academy in Dubai. Morris is among the last to turn out to bat, after an exciting first net session with the ball. As Morris swings hard, he feels a pull in his stomach and immediately knows something is off. A precautionary scan reveals a strain to the stomach muscle. It’s just week one, and while there’s three weeks to go for the tournament to begin, Morris isn’t part of much of the build-up. But because he’s such an integral member of the squad, they’re giving every opportunity to put himself back on the field.
Sending him home after spending tons and tons of hours of time and energy at the mock auction, real auction, over numerous zoom sessions Hesson and Katich conducted in preparation for the season – both in March and August – individually to ensure all their players are up for it mentally, wasn’t even an option. It’s this sentiment of being made to feel wanted that seals Morris’ bond with his new franchise, his fourth in the IPL after the Super Kings, Rajasthan Royals and Delhi Daredevils.
“Give me somebody who doesn’t like the feeling of being wanted – whether in sport, in a relationship or just in life in general,” Morris asks. “It’s just nice to feel important. The medical staff were incredible. For them to get me back on the park was really good. I’ve never had that type of injury before. It was a new thing for me.”
The Royal Challengers’ physio office in their hotel wing is open at 7am every day. Players zoom in and out for their sessions, and Morris is regular. Six weeks of exercises, rehabilitation, rest – where he doesn’t try to risk himself to the extent of having a swing on the golf simulator – is all worth it. Morris is fit, and the Royal Challengers are readying themselves to bring him into the competition five games in. It may seem all good now in hindsight that they waited on him, but Morris himself was full of apprehension as he raced against time to be fit.
“I didn’t know what to expect or how long it was going to take,” he says. “We worked really hard. It was a tough four and half weeks for myself and the medical team. We grafted in the gym, we grafted on treatment tables. It was day-in, day-out. I had the machine in my room treating myself throughout the night. Literally, I would wake up every two hours and ice myself throughout the night. It was a hard graft and here we are. We are happy to be playing. As a medical team, they were all happy I can get back on the field and start playing.”
Morris immediately impressed in his first outing, against his former team Super Kings, by opening with 3 for 19 off his four overs. Since then, he has delivered one telling performance after another. So far, he has nine wickets in six outings. More than 50% of his 120 deliveries so far have been dot balls. His powerplay economy is an outstanding 4.5, with his death-overs economy pegged at 6.38.
His Smart Economy of 3.67 is second-best to team-mate Washington Sundar. This component factors in the match economy, the phase of the game where he bowled and the pressure on his team after he bowled his overs. All of this points to something having worked for him lately. For Morris, this isn’t about the technical adjustments he has made. It’s mental. And it revolves around the philosophy that the next ball is the most important ball he’ll bowl.
“Ah, I think I’m in a blessed position, to be honest,” he says. “So, there are high pressure points that you want to be in as a cricketer. That’s where you want to get tested as a cricketer. You get to bowl fast, bowl yorkers and smash sixes (laughs). What more do you want? I have been very fortunate. I haven’t been really smacked (around in IPL) yet, but that’s going to come unfortunately. That’s the nature of the beast — the IPL.
“I just have to keep my clarity. The moment you lose clarity of what you want to do, that’s when everything gets side-tracked. The bounce-back ability needs to be good. As a new-ball and death bowler, you are going to get hit for six, you will get inside-edges for fours. It is about how you fix the next ball. If the next ball gets hit for a six, then just bowl the next, keep repeating, give your best. You have to continue to get better. Like I said, I’ve been very lucky, I have got wickets, I haven’t been hit for runs. I hope it continues, if it doesn’t it is about how you limit it. It is a tough game, but I enjoy doing it.”
Morris agrees all the change in thought process has taken a while coming. A forced break due to Covid-19 somewhat hampered his plans. At 33, he’s more than past the halfway stage of his career, but Morris isn’t on the lookout to make up for lost time. Having been injured at various times in his career, experience, he says, has taught him to look at every opportunity as a blessing and how not playing with the fear of injuries and with a clear thought process of what he wants to execute in every game helps him balance out the good days with the bad.
“I haven’t had muddled messages coming around,” he says. “It’s like ‘this is what I want to do’, ‘this is how I want to do’, and then you execute. If something goes wrong, you then go on to Plan B, because we have a Plan B. Or else, Plan C. What has worked for me is a lot of clarity and what the execution needs to be. We do a lot of homework. Everything that happens behind the scenes, we work so hard that by the time we get to the game, we know what we want and then it’s up to us to execute. Our plans are very clear.
“Once you’re clear about what you need to do, it’s a lot more easier for Virat (Kohli) to worry about field placements and stuff because most of us know what to do by the time we get to the top of our mark. Playing under Virat is very good. The biggest thing for me is he expects excellence, he expects you to put the work in because he puts the work in. Like I said, behind the scene we’re putting all the work in. We’re thinking about the game even before we get into the game. So it’s been really good to play under him. He just exudes that energy that he wants to win all the time, like just want to get into the game. That’s what his attribute to the team is apart from performance. “
Clear plans, hard work and fitness aside, Morris is soaking in the experience of mentoring young Indian fast bowlers. In an age where ‘mentorship’ is loosely thrown around every senior player, the Royal Challengers have walked the extra mile in ensuring senior members of their squad spend time with their paired-up juniors. It doesn’t necessarily revolve around just skillsets or fitness. It can be life lessons too, chats about what makes them tick, what doesn’t. How their life is back home outside of cricket. Incidentally, these were the lessons Morris says he learnt from “legend” Dale Steyn, who he now can call a friend. Morris couldn’t have imagined, when he was growing up in the diamond town of Kimberley, wanting to bowl fast, that he could even have a conversation with Steyn. Today, he has shared dressing rooms with him at South Africa and now at the Royal Challengers.
“Dale is a legend. Why I have been lucky is because he is not just a mentor, he is actually one of my friends,” he says. “I pinch myself every now and then and say, Dale is my friend. We love to spend time and do things together. We are also very similar in our interests of sport. We also have similar music tastes. So, we click very well and we speak a lot of rubbish together. I’m very lucky not just to have him in the change room but also as my mate. His inputs have been so important and valuable. For me, more important for me with Dale is not the stuff that we talk on the field but more the stuff the stuff we talk about off the field, in life in general. For a guy who’s been playing since he was 20 and to almost being 47 now, I’m joking. For him to be 38 and still do what he does is incredible. The stuff that we talk about and the stuff he brings to the team is invaluable.”
What about life in a bubble? Surely that would’ve been challenging in the midst of a demanding tournament?
“It’s been different, at the beginning I honestly thought it’ll be a lot worse, I will get bored and lose my mind, but luckily we’ve got a good bunch of guys,” he says. “The RCB management have been unbelievable by putting together that team room. That has been amazing. We’ve got a pool to ourselves, we’ve got a private beach. We had a barbeque [last week], all of us outside. It was awesome with cricket on the big screen. We’ve got a golf simulator, so we have got everything that we want. We’re lucky with the way RCB has spoilt us players, and all the effort they have put in to keep us happy and comfortable has been incredible. So for us, the bio-bubble has been really cool, a lot of fun and hopefully if we get to spend an extra week, hopefully we do, it’ll be quite nice.”
Welcome to FIFA.com News – Pele: The only thing I haven’t done in 80 years is play on the moon
- Pele turns 80 today
- FIFA had the immense privilege of interviewing ‘The King’
- An emotional Pele expressed his gratitude to football
“In Pele’s 80 years, the only thing that’s missing is to land on the moon,” a teary-eyed Pele told FIFA on his landmark birthday. “When there’s football on the moon, I’ll go there and have a little kickaround.”
In this interview, ‘The King’ discussed everything he has achieved with Brazil, Santos and New York Cosmos, told an amusing childhood story and revealed his gratitude to football.
“I’m crying with joy,” he assured his wife Marcia as she passed him a tissue. “Can’t I cry with joy?”
You can watch the full video interview above.
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