A quirk of the pandemic, a packed schedule and England’s changing priorities is that when Ben Stokes takes the field against India in Pune on Tuesday, it will be the all-rounder’s first one-day international since his starring role in the 2019 World Cup final.
While Stokes has been an ever-present on the two-month tour of India, one which ends with three ODIs behind closed doors at the MCA Stadium, this comeback of sorts should be one he relishes, with his role in the 50-over side more defined – or least certainly more central – than in the T20 side that succumbed to the recent 3-2 defeat.
That series threw up plenty of questions for England, not least the ongoing debate about how best to utilise Stokes in the shortest format. Batting at No 6 – where he faced just 56 balls for his 70 runs – and sharing duties as a fifth bowler, the 29-year-old felt a curiously underused resource given his obvious pedigree.
In 50-over cricket the canvas for a batting all-rounder is far greater, however. And so while two T20 World Cups in two years mean the format is relegated to third place by way of importance, Stokes has the chance to end what has been a quietish trip with a flourish before he and others join their Indian Premier League franchises.
“It is great to have him back,” said Eoin Morgan. “He really enjoys his white-ball cricket and it is important to keep him engaged in that. If you don’t play a format for a long time, it can show neglect in certain parts of the game. We know how demanding the other formats are on his body and mind, so it is great to have him around.”
The absence of Joe Root, rested after his exertions in the Test series, opens up a spot at No 3. Many feel this would be the best way to accommodate Stokes in the T20 side and it will be interesting to see whether England explore this through the 50-over team (Dawid Malan is only a reserve for this leg) or ask Sam Billings to move up.
While the tour’s denouement counts towards qualification for the 2023 World Cup through the ODI Super League, Morgan chiefly hopes it sees fringe players put their hands up for both white-ball formats, not least with Jofra Archer also missing due to his elbow injury and Chris Woakes not asked to return to India after eight (unused) weeks in the Test bubble.
Morgan said: “Playing any international cricket is a huge opportunity for guys who have been here on the fringes and not made selection so far. We see the 50-over format between the two T20 World Cups as a building block for our [overall] squad.
“It has been an extremely productive tour so far. The biggest picture is always the World Cup in both white-ball formats. You don’t always have to win every series in order to win a World Cup. You continuously need to get better, need to be tested as a side, need to fail in order to learn. That involves losing, which isn’t fun but it is part of the journey.”
As well as Billings, who made his maiden ODI century against Australia last summer from No 6, left-armer Reece Topley and Lancashire’s Liam Livingstone and Matt Parkinson should be the chief beneficiaries here. The latter finally steps up from the reserves’ bench he has occupied since the start of the Sri Lanka tour in January, the only player to go the distance.
Given England’s reliance on Adil Rashid, his fellow leg-spinner, Parkinson is certainly worth blooding at some stage in the series. Moeen Ali is another who may finally get a chance on tour, having missed the last two India Tests for his scheduled break only to return and find himself overlooked for the entire T20 series.
Virat Kohli was among those baffled by this – doubtless Root has a few opinions here too – but Morgan was unrepentant. “I know he has not played but that’s been circumstantial,” said England’s white-ball captain. “The pitches we played on just haven’t turned and that obviously limits the contribution a finger spinner might make.”
Morgan declined to say whether Moeen will start on Tuesday. As was the case in Ahmedabad, the captain is not expecting much turn and noted the ground in Pune has smaller dimensions. Nevertheless, it would be strange if England had just one spinner among their six bowling options for a 50-over match in India.
They face a formidable task either way, with Kohli back at No 3 behind the established opening partnership of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, before a middle order that could see Suryakumar Yadav make his a debut after explosive scores of 57 and 32 were key to India’s stirring comeback in the T20s.
Another factor was Hardik Pandya’s return to bowling after injury. Stokes may be back in England’s powder blue ODI shirt for the first time since that heady day at Lord’s, but he is not the only match-winning, tattooed all-rounder on show this week.