Eoin Morgan: The exile who is busy making himself at home

Irish batting maestro risked his Test place to gain experience in India and it's paying off handsomely – now he has eyes on leading his adopted country. Stephen Brenkley meets Eoin Morgan
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The Independent Online

As a calculated gamble, the rewards far outweighed the risks. It seems that Eoin Morgan knew precisely what he was doing. He had the nerve, the skill and the chutzpah to pull it off, and the result may be a place in the England Test team for the next 10 years.

Morgan, a batsman of prodigious talent and conviction, spent the first part of this season playing Twenty20 cricket for Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League instead of four-day cricket for Middlesex in the County Championship. The contract was worth $350,000 (£219,000) but it left him with barely any time to stake a claim for a place in the Test series against Sri Lanka.

Rivals, especially Ravi Bopara of Essex, spurned the IPL to hone their form in the longer game. It seemed more pragmatic, it seemed wise. Bopara scored plenty of Champion-ship runs, including hundreds in successive matches; Morgan made 137 from nine IPL innings.

Morgan had one first-class match and probably only one innings to dissuade the selectors from opting for Bopara. The selectors had met, they had made up their mind. If the t's were uncrossed, the i's were dotted. It was that close. Morgan went out at Derby for England Lions against the Sri Lankans and scored a seamless, charming 193, Bopara a fitful, worried19. The deal was unstruck. Morgan had the place.

"Getting picked wasn't that unexpected for me," said Morgan. "My plan was to come back and score runs in a Championship game for Middlesex, because to be considered you had to play one game. As it was, I was picked for the Lions so I had to score runs there instead, and I did."

It epitomises the man, his belief and what he wants to do with his career. It has been this way since he was a boy of 12 back in Ireland, and he made it clear then that his ambition was to represent England at Test cricket. He played in India partly because he had signed the contract, partly because he reckoned he could do what needed to be done whenhe returned, and partly because it furthered his education.

"I learned a hell of a lot," he said as he prepared to face India in the Test series starting on Thursday that will decide if England can overtake their opponents at No 1 in the world Test rankings. "The conditions out there are unlike anywhere in the world, very testing, and each wicket is different.

"At our home ground the bowling was opened with two spinners most of the time and that in itself was a massive learning curve. It wasn't a huge standard, nowhere near international standard, which is totally understandable, but playing with Jacques Kallis this year and Rahul Dravid last year, legends of the game, I found out so much."

Morgan speaks passionately on this point, especially about Kallis, the most dispassionate player in world cricket. The secret to Kallis's game is that he never becomes excited, is never disconcerted by the moment. "It's not just his cricket, he's laid-back about everything," Morgan said. "He has been there, he has done everything, he has had the highs, he has had the lows, so picking his brain was wonderful.

"He is so chilled out. Watching him in the changing room, he could be anywhere, he could be on his couch at home. Batting with him with a massive crowd all chanting is just like sitting with him in a living room changing a channel. I didn't know you could play to your strengths that much."

Morgan has already gone some way towards securing his place in the Test side, at least for the rest of this summer. His pair of seventies in the Test series against Sri Lanka were marvellously crafted, tailored clinically to the needs of the occasion.

He can be going like a train but he is never rushed. That much was shown in his enormously mature maiden Test hundred last year at Trent Bridge. He was squeezed out of the Ashes team last winter; he may not be easily usurped again.

The IPL may have helped in another way. It gave him access to the bowlers he will face in the forthcoming series. He mentioned the left-arm seamer Zaheer Khan and the off- spinner Harbhajan Singh. "You pick up their action more than anything else. It's a similar advantage to having played against Lasith Malinga before. So small bits here and there."

No matter that cricket is extremely small potatoes in Ireland, the Morgan family is steeped in the game. "My dad is demented about cricket and he grew up in a family where everybody played. His brothers and sisters played, his father was a good cricketer, he was about third generation, and it filtered through. I come from quite a big family, I have three brothers and two sisters and they all played. We're very passionate about it."

Morgan showed early promise and when he was 13 he told Irish cricket administrators that he would not sign any contracts, should they ever be offered, because he wanted to play Test cricket for England, and Ireland did not play Test cricket.

When he was 14, he spent some of the summer term at Dulwich College, part of an exchange trip. He made 167 for London Schools and although Surrey were unmoved, Middlesex saw what he had. The following year he signed for the county. It helped that Ed Joyce, who became the first Irishman to play one-day cricket for England, had paved the way.

Morgan played 23 one-day internationals for Ireland, the first at 19, but his intention was never to stay. "There's no reason Irish guys won't want to play for England," he said. "You ask the Irish captain at the moment if he wants to play for England in the Test matches."

Five Irishmen have played Test cricket for England. Morgan was the first for more than a century. Two have captained: Sir Tim Carew O'Brien, in one match in South Africa in 1896; and Fred Fane, five times between 1907-10. Morgan may yet follow them into the role. He is already vice-captain of the Twenty20 side, was interviewed via Skype for the job of one-day captain when he was still in India and has not been afraid to respond assertively when asked about captaincy.

"It is absolutely a long-term target of mine," he said. "If you asked anybody, would they like to captain England in a Test match, one-day international or Twenty20, they would jump at the chance."

"I am a leader within the batting unit. A good leader leads from the front and the way in which I play can have a positive effect on the side. It is something that I can develop over time." And time, not to mention timing, is on his side.

Irish Test captains

Two Irishmen have previously been captain of England in Test matches. The more durable was Fred Fane, who was born in Curragh Camp and led the team in five of his 14 Tests.

The more authentic was perhaps Sir Timothy Carew O'Brien, the third in a baronetcy which is now dormant, although he fathered 10 children.

O'Brien, who was born in Dublin and educated at Downside, played five Test matches spanning 12 years between 1884 and 1896.

His day in the sun as captain came in the First Test against South Africa in Port Elizabeth in 1896, when the tourists won by 288 runs. Perhaps it was O'Brien who inspired George Lohmann to deliver figures of 7 for38 and 8 for 7.

O'Brien was an old-fashioned amateur who loved to attack and he was slightly out of his depth in the highest company, as 59 runs fromeight innings show.

But for Middlesex he had his moments, in 1899 scoring 92 and 110 not out – the last 83 coming in 35 minutes – in a remarkable win against Yorkshire. He played for the last time at 52 and made 90 and 111.

Stephen Brenkley