The statement from Sam Billings that the rest of the world are “petrified” of England ahead of the Champions Trophy was remarkable for two reasons.
Firstly, English sportsmen are not known for cocky self-assurance, particularly in the lead up to major tournaments. Secondly, it is just two years since England were humiliatingly dumped out of the 2015 World Cup – the last major global 50-over tournament – at the group stage after stinking out venues across Australia and New Zealand.
However, in the two years since, the one-day side led by Eoin Morgan have undergone a stunning transformation. A willingness to embrace youth, particularly aggressive young batsmen, has reaped spectacular results – evidenced by a world-record ODI total of 444-3 plundered against Pakistan at Trent Bridge last summer.
England’s batting firepower means Billings doesn’t even get into the first-choice XI when everyone is available. Yet Billings will have the chance to show what he can do in his preferred position when he keeps wicket in the two-match series against Ireland that starts in Bristol on Friday. Jos Buttler, England’s first-choice limited-overs keeper, Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes have all been given permission to miss the Ireland matches to continue playing in the Indian Premier League. That is where Billings, a member of the Delhi Daredevils franchise, has just returned from.
And the performance of England’s players in the lucrative T20 league – particularly the 103 in 63 balls hit by Stokes for Pune last Monday – has underlined the team’s growing reputation among their international rivals.
“The best thing about the IPL is you share a dressing room with these guys,” says Billings. “Previously in this country we haven’t made one-day cricket a priority as such, but now people are petrified of our side now and you only find that out by talking to them.
“Stokes gets a hundred, three Man of the Match awards, everyone knows what he can do then Woakes, Buttler – every single person over there made contributions and it showed our depth at the moment.
“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. You’ve probably got ten more guys who could slot in and do well. It keeps everyone on their toes.
“Generally there’s a buzz around the reputation of the England team in white ball cricket – it’s amazing to think about that transition from two years ago.”
These games against Ireland – the second takes place at Lord’s on Sunday – represent the start of England’s build-up to the Champions Trophy. It’s a tournament that, as hosts, they now have a realistic chance of winning.
Never before have England landed a major 50-over title. But whereas in the past there may have been hope they could make history, this summer there is a firm belief and expectation it can be achieved.
Eoin Morgan, England’s limited-overs captain who was born in Dublin, could be forgiven for a touch of sentimentality ahead of this match against Ireland, for whom he played for 23 times in ODIs before switching allegiance in 2009.
It feels a special occasion to me because we get to open our summer with a white-ball game.
This will be the first time his homeland have played England in England. It’s a huge moment then for many of his former team-mates, including opposite number William Porterfield, who Morgan has known since the age of 11.
Morgan, though, had little time for sentiment when discussing this series. England have just five matches – including three against South Africa later this month – before they begin their Champions Trophy campaign on June 1.
“It feels a special occasion to me because we get to open our summer with a white-ball game,” says Morgan. “That’s not necessarily something that’s happened in the past. It’s something different and an opportunity to set the tone for what is a big summer for us and it’s an opportunity we want to take.”
England are likely to opt for four seamers in Bristol, with Mark Wood, set to play his first international in eight months following ankle surgery, David Willey (shoulder), Jake Ball (knee) and Liam Plunkett (calf) making their way back from injury.
Morgan said: “We’ve got David coming back, whose played Championship cricket and a couple of one-dayers, Liam’s coming back and Mark has obviously had quit a long, arduous stint back from injury so getting cricket under those guys’ belt is really important.
“These two games we earmarked for younger guys coming through but our bowlers have been injured so they need to play.”
If that quartet do play it would mean one of two spinners in the form of Moeen Ali or Adil Rashid missing out. Moeen’s batting ability may work in his favour but Ireland’s lack of experience to quality leg-spin might see Rashid make the cut instead.
Whatever the final XI, Morgan’s team will be expected to comfortably beat opponents who have lost five of their previous six encounters against England.
Ireland’s only victory in those games was their most famous – in Bangalore at the 2011 World Cup. Such slip-ups, particularly on the eve of another major tournament, can act as a useful reminder to England that despite their new-found reputation history dictates that complacency is not an option.