England’s confidence heading into this summer’s Champions Trophy will be buoyed by the fact they believe they possess the best player in the world in Ben Stokes.
That was the verdict of Eoin Morgan, England’s limited-overs captain, after Stokes went a long way to justifying his £1.7m Indian Premier League price tag with a stunning century on Monday.
Stokes, the most expensive overseas player in IPL history, smashed an unbeaten 103 from 63 balls to help the Rising Pune Supergiant chase down 161 against Gujarat Lions.
In the process the England all-rounder upstaged team-mates Steve Smith, the Australia captain, and India legend Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Morgan is back from his own IPL stint with the Kings XI Punjab to captain England in two ODIs against Ireland in Bristol on Friday and at Lord’s on Sunday.
Stokes, along with Chris Woakes and Jos Buttler, will miss those matches to continue playing in the IPL.
But when he returns later this month, Morgan believes England will reap the benefits of the confidence their star player has gained from his debut season in the Indian T20 tournament.
“It was incredible, absolutely incredible,” Morgan said of Stokes’ innings.
“You look at why guys go and play in tournaments like this. It’s actually so they can produce performances like Ben’s, and sit in the same team as an Australian captain and an Indian legend – and outperform them.
“It builds a huge amount of confidence, and I think it's a huge stepping block for us as England cricketers.
“I think it just proves that he can compete with the best.
“Fifty-over cricket has come a long way. The similarities between that and T20 cricket, they’re not that far away.
“Rubbing shoulders with the best names in the world, outperforming them or growing in confidence from playing with them are two things he’ll have in abundance when he comes back.
“It makes us grow as a group, knowing we have a player who potentially is the best in the world. That’s huge.”
Morgan, Sam Billings and Jason Roy have all returned from the IPL for the two-match series against Ireland that marks the start of England’s preparations for the Champions Trophy.
Morgan has so far only played in three matches for the Kings XI, with a highest score of 26.
But along with Billings, he will head back to India after the weekend to make himself available for three more matches rather than play for Middlesex, his county, in domestic 50-over cricket.
Given Morgan’s lack of IPL action so far, he might have been better served staying in England and playing in two Royal London One-Day Cup matches.
That’s the decision Jason Roy made after the Surrey opener’s limited opportunities for Gujarat Lions in this year’s IPL.
“I think Jason is a bit further away from playing [IPL] at the moment than probably I will be when I go back,” said Morgan. “But that’s a decision we made. He feels comfortable with what he needs and how he’ll get it.”
Morgan will spend just six days back in India before he returns to the UK ahead of a team training camp in Spain starting on May 16 that precedes a three-match ODI series against South Africa – England’s last before the Champions Trophy.
Before then, the Dublin-born batsman will be facing familiar opponents in Ireland, for whom this is not only a debut series against England but also their first-ever away match against their neighbours.
Morgan, who played 23 one-day internationals for Ireland before switching his allegiance to England in 2009, said: “There’s very much a serious test to these two games, and I think that’s emphasised by guys coming back from the IPL to play in them.
“It’s not very often that an associate nation opens a summer of English cricket - it’s an important start to what's going to be a big summer.”
The main focus of the summer, well the first half of it anyway, will be England’s attempts to win a first-ever major global 50-over title when they host the Champions Trophy next month.
England are considered favourites by many to win the tournament given their dramatic renaissance in white-ball cricket over the past two years and the fact they have home advantage.
Winning the 2019 World Cup, also on home soil, is England’s ultimate goal. But the tighter format of the Champions Trophy – Morgan’s side will probably have to win two of their three group matches against Bangladesh, New Zealand and Australia to progress – makes this summer’s challenge arguably even tougher.
“I think we’re definitely in with a shout,” said Morgan. “We have all the attributes to win the tournament. It’s come at a great time.
“It’s a ruthless competition, the Champions Trophy. You go into games needing to win pretty much every one – it’ll be a good gauge of where we’re at as a side.
“It’s important to emphasise that we’ve done a lot of great stuff up until now, but we still have a long way to go before 2019.”