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Peter Hayter column – A claim of top Billings is often perilous

When Sam Billings told them and us last week that the rest of the world of cricket is “petrified” of England’s one-day cricketers, it prompted two distinct and conflicting reactions.

First: yes, good on him for talking up his side’s prospects in the build-up to the ICC Champions Trophy.

At last, it seems, England’s white-ball cricketers have broken the psychological shackles of believing themselves inferior to their opponents, a mindset that, while understandable and usually justified, has surely underpinned their failure to lift a single global 50-over trophy ever.

Installed as 3-1 co-favourites with Australia? We will have some of that, Billings was telling us, and how refreshing did that sound?

And then, the other thought.

Fresh home from his stint with Delhi Daredevils in the Indian Premier League, Billings reflected on how other teams and players have responded to the exploits of England stars like Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes and their skipper Eoin Morgan.

“The best thing about the IPL”, the Kent wicket-keeper-batsman enthused, “is that you share a dressing room with these guys and previously in this country we haven’t made one-day cricket a priority as such, but people are petrified of our side now.

“It’s very interesting to hear what other internationals think of our side. It’s kind of gone full circle – people now think we have a seriously good squad.”

No one is criticising Billings for his enthusiasm, of course and, on the face of it, it seems supportable.

Stokes has been truly outstanding, his brilliant century for Rising Pune Supergiant against Gujarat Lions the other week arguably the innings of the whole show, and although the others have not hit his heights, they have made crucial contributions along the way.

England’s record since they shed their old skin following the 2015 World Cup boasts seven wins from ten series and some huge totals, including their record 444 for three against Pakistan last summer.

Morgan is in charge of a settled and exciting side and any squad strong enough to omit emerging stars like Liam Livingstone, let alone an established one like Jonny Bairstow, cannot be too shabby.

But petrifying? Really?

Closer inspection of those results show that, of those wins, two came against a Pakistan side now ranked eighth in the ICC ODI standings, one against Sri Lanka (sixth), one against Bangladesh (seventh), one against West Indies (ninth) and one against Ireland (12th out of 12).

Their best performance was the first of the sequence, when they shocked beaten World Cup finalists New Zealand by racking up 408 in the first match at Edgbaston two summers ago summer and went on to win 3-2.

But against the three other teams currently standing above them in the world rankings, they have lost three out of three, to Australia, South Africa and India.

And a quick check of the rankings shows that, whatever the perception of his side’s achievement over the past two years, Morgan’s men are not currently first, second, third or fourth, but fifth.

Overall, then, hardly the form to strike fear into the hearts of the Proteas who, bringing three wins from their last three matches against England, arrived this week for a series of three matches in six days, starting at Headingley next Wednesday, that will tell us much more about England’s prospects in the Champions Trophy that begins on Thursday, June 1.

Assuming England avoid defeat in their opening match at The Oval against Bangladesh who, lest we forget, took one of the three matches the teams contested last winter, group ties against the Kiwis and the Aussies will determine whether the optimism of their supporters and the assessment of the bookies is actually justified. Form and status are not the only issues, of course.

On an entirely different level, while some will seek to excuse it as innocent inexperience, has Billings really never come across the concept of hubris?

If not, he might benefit from a quick flick through the discarded reputations of those who tempted the sporting fates too cheekily, too often or just too far.

True, Sir Alf Ramsey proved as good as his word when, on becoming manager of the England football team in 1963, he announced:” England will win the World Cup in 1966.”

Things did not go quite so well or Sven Goran Eriksson 40 years later when, prior to the 2006 tournament he told the world: “I think we will win this time,” thus guaranteeing their latest disappointment.

Tony Greig saying his England side intended to make the 1976 West Indies “grovel?” England 0 West Indies 3.

After returning from a spying mission to watch India’s new leg-spinner Anil Kumble in preparation for his side’s tour to the subcontinent in 1993, the England coach Keith Fletcher reported:” I didn’t see him turn a single ball from leg to off. I don’t believe we will have much problem with him.” Three straight Test defeats and 21 wickets for the bespectacled twirler later, his batsmen may have begged to differ.

More recently and certainly more pertinently, consider what Ashley Giles told The Cricket Paper at the end of April about what thoughts he allowed to linger in his mind as the final of the 2014 Champions Trophy against India drew to its climax, the match and England’s first global success seemingly within their grasp.

“Usually, for me, it’s not over until it’s over,” said their former ODI coach.

“But this was one of the only times in my career when I allowed myself to think: “we’ve done this.”

“We needed 20 from 16 balls to win (with six wickets remaining), Ravi (Bopara) and Morgs had just hit two sixes in six balls and I thought: “We’re actually going to win the match. Then we lose two wickets in two balls and the rest is history.”

History tells us that hubris in sport hardly ever ends well.

Sam Billings had better hope that, like Sir Alf, he turns out to be the exception that proves the rule.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, May 19 2017

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