All eyes on Livingstone
"I was brought up in the north so I don't really care what people say about me." As Liam Livingstone sheltered from the heat in Colombo and reflected on a successful debut tour with England Lions, his note of defiance encapsulated a career that is now demanding reassessment.
Only good things were said about Livingstone in Sri Lanka. He made two hundreds in a match in Dambulla against Sri Lanka A, doubling his first-class tally achieved in his introductory championship summer for Lancashire, and he might have had a third century in little more than a week had he not been afflicted by cramp during a one-day match against the same opposition at the same venue.
By the end of a Lions tour, there is often a Man Most Likely To. In Sri Lanka, Livingstone became that man.
Andy Flower, the England Lions coach, had recently observed that Livingstone hit the ball as hard as anybody he had ever seen. From Flower, whose official pronouncements often seem to come from the other side of a firewall, it was praise indeed. Livingstone's work to quicken his footwork against spin bowling was also commended.
Within the England set-up, anticipation abounds. It is easy to imagine him slipping into an England one-day middle order before too long, perhaps even against Ireland in May. A late dash into the Champions Trophy squad this summer might be too ambitious - such is the strength of the batting at England's disposal - but his shot-making is bold and his offspin, a recent development initially encouraged by Sri Lanka A's procession of left-handers, has been instantly serviceable. His progress this season will be eagerly monitored.
But accolades have not always come so easily. Growing up, dreaming of one day making the grade at Lancashire, Livingstone became inured to hearing that he was "just a slogger". He makes no secret of the fact that he would quite like to bump into one particular Under-13 coach in the north of England who was particularly disparaging about his chances. Even now, doubts may still linger about the adaptability of his attacking style.
"I've always been a person who doesn't really care what people think," Livingstone said. "If you are soft in the north, you don't really last very long. If I was in any way soft or weak, then I might have believed that, because I am a bit of a whacker in one-day cricket, I might never play first-class cricket."
The coach who fervently believed from the outset was John Stanworth, who was a director of Lancashire's academy until he lost his job in a coaching reshuffle in 2015, and who is now head coach of the England Women's senior academy. When Livingstone made his two hundreds in a match against Sri Lanka A, matching an achievement only previously managed by Kevin Pietersen, Stanworth was the first person to WhatsApp him to say well done.
"The one person who always said I would be good enough was Stanny," Livingstone said. "He told me I hit the ball cleanly, as cleanly as he had ever seen a young kid hit a cricket ball. He was the one who had brought everyone through the academy at Lancashire, and for him to say that to me gave me the confidence that I was going to be all right. He was my one big supporter for my three years at the academy."
Livingstone is a physical cricketer, and on his first Lions tour, it is unsurprising that his Dambulla exertions took their toll. Fatigue caught up with him a few days later when he dominated another Lions innings, this time making 94 in the second one-day fixture. Increasingly stricken by cramp soon after passing 50, he was eventually last out, caught at deep midwicket, falling short of a third hundred by a few metres. His leaden attempts to return to the field to bowl in the Sri Lanka A innings lasted a single, painful over, as his body rebelled. Sri Lanka's cloying climate had claimed another victim.
"I asked the physio if there was anything I could have done, eating-wise, to avoid it," he recollected. "I had tried to prepare. I had taken salts on. I had taken fluids on. My calves were probably just cooked from the week I had had. It was just something that happened.
"I was getting a rub from the physio between innings, trying to flush out the cramp, and even lying on the physio bed I was getting cramps in my whole body, everywhere including my back. It was just physical exhaustion. When I walked back onto the field, I felt I was going to be all right. Then I tried to bowl a ball. The first ball, I felt it in both legs.
"Everything on this tour has been a learning experience for me. It is not just the heat and the humidity, the concentration takes it out of you as well. And you are very rarely able to jog a one these days. You can try and save as much energy as you can, but you always have to put fielders under pressure."
Two Lancashire players moulded by Stanworth - two players, too, of very different approaches, one unyielding in defence, one committed to attack - have this winter challenged the perception that English cricket draws from too narrow a base.
Livingstone's pathway, in its own way, has been just as challenging. He grew up in Barrow, an unpretentious industrial town on the Cumbrian coast, at the end, the locals like to say, of the longest cul de sac in England. Chetwynde School, a free school, like many of those in the state sector, had no cricketing pedigree. The staff arranged an occasional game in the summer, partly for Livingstone's benefit, reacting to the talent and enthusiasm they had found in their midst.
Barrow Cricket Club was only 30 yards from his home, and as he grew up, it became his favourite haunt. He was the kid who would forever be hanging around, waiting and hoping.
"People these days would rather be inside playing on PlayStations - I think the whole of sport is suffering from that," he said. "But when I was a kid, the last thing I would want was to be inside. I would be getting dragged in by my mum every night. Whenever there was training on, I would be there. Whenever there was a game on, I would be hoping that somebody wouldn't turn up so I could fit in.
"Barrow CC is home for me. As a kid, growing up on a slow, low wicket at Barrow was better for me than playing on really top club wickets because you learn you don't score runs easily. Then as you go up the levels, the wickets get better.
"So many people can take different routes into an England Lions team, and when that happens you kind of share different qualities in a team. I wouldn't change anything."
His formative years were also striking for a brief, and entirely unproductive, university career. Many sportspeople in the past have abandoned their studies when a professional career beckons, but Livingstone was faster than most. Not a single lecture attended. The memory brought a philosophical expelling of breath.
"I never wanted to go to uni anyway. I just wanted to get closer to Lancs. I think it was a sports management degree. I went to my induction and I lived in my student halls for three months. Then I got signed on a scholarship by Lancs and that was that. I imagine there aren't many people who have gone to uni and not gone to a single lecture. That's the way it goes, isn't it? Luckily I did well at the academy or I don't know what I would have done."
In 2015, he made an impact in T20 and was part of Lancashire's trophy-winning side in the NatWest Blast, although he made a duck in the final. Lancashire were pressing for the Division Two championship that year, so the advent of a big-hitting batsman in the academy brought no first-class baptism.
But he made a List A debut against Kent at Canterbury in August of that year and made 91 from 88 balls, which convinced him that he could make the grade in all formats. He was soon pressing Ashley Giles, then Lancashire's director of cricket, to be given his chance.
"I had a chat with Gilo at the start of last season and he said, 'We don't know whether you have the technique for first-class cricket but I am going to take a punt on you.' With a person like me, it was probably the right approach. I wanted to prove them wrong.
"I said I just wanted to play my own way and I thought that would stand me in good stead. He said, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' After the last warm-up game he said I was going to bat 7. It suited me to ease my way in. I batted with the tail a lot and it took away my own pressure because you get involved in the game scenario. It is also acceptable to be positive as a batter when you are batting with the tail. I moved up the order later in the season and it didn't go as well, but I know I have the capabilities of batting up the order."
The summer ended with Livingstone topping Lancashire's Championship averages, enough for England Lions to come calling. To those two Championship hundreds have now been added two more in Dambulla, but Giles has departed to Warwickshire, there is a new head coach in Glen Chapple and he will be awaiting proof that Livingstone can also prosper in Lancashire's Championship middle order in an English spring.
This might be an age when T20 riches increasingly abound, but Livingstone dismisses suggestions that this is where his career might naturally head. "A lot of people say that I am a very one-day player, and all the talk is about T20," he said. "Stuff like that annoys me because in my first year in first-class cricket I have done all right and then I have come away and done well in Sri Lanka. I have always believed I am good enough to play first-class cricket."
The heat of Sri Lanka is now behind him. In the chill of an English April, few players will be watched with more interest.
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps