Eoin Morgan has been England’s great problem solver – now he faces his own

Morgan has been an indispensable captain for England but a poor run of form with the bat has raised doubts over his place in the side, writes Vithushan Ehantharajah

Saturday 23 October 2021 12:32
<p>Doubts have been raised about Eoin Morgan’s place in the side </p>

Doubts have been raised about Eoin Morgan’s place in the side

Some who know Eoin Morgan say he isn’t a great dancer. Others say, actually, he’s not too bad, but tends to chill at the side encouraging others. At Jos Buttler’s wedding, he noticed the sister of the groom rounding up her kids while the dance floor was heaving. “Let me look after them,” offered Morgan. “You have to dance – it’s your brother’s wedding.”

Almost all say you won’t find a captain or a man who looks out for you more than Morgan. The likes of Alex Hales and Liam Plunkett may think otherwise, out of the one-day side before and after the 2019 World Cup respectively (for wildly different reasons). But the exceptions are easy to name because the rule holds steady.

Most players have their own story, whether a simple chat at the bar over their games or, in the case of Joe Root, captaincy nuggets, or calls to discuss selection or a pep talk. When Adil Rashid signed what at the time was a controversial white-ball only contract with Yorkshire at the start of 2018, Morgan shielded Rashid from the criticism coming his way. As the T20 squad prepared for a match in Hamilton, New Zealand, Morgan made a note of sitting with Rashid, chatting out in the open prior to training as the press drifted into the ground with questions. The only concrete answer from that day was that England, and more importantly Morgan, were with their leg spinner whatever his situation.

There have been other instances of Morgan putting himself in front of those under his care. Perhaps, the most light-hearted was in the aftermath of the Ben Stokes and Alex Hales incident in Bristol. A week later, photos emerged from Buttler’s stag do to Amsterdam where the party, which included some cricketers, were throwing around a dildo. Andrew Strauss, managing director of England men’s cricket at the time, had quietly asked for the trip to be canned and was angered when the snaps emerged in the tabloids tagged as another “shame” for English cricket. Morgan, in attendance, received angry correspondence from Strauss, but downplayed the incident as general high jinks. He even joked there were more embarrassing photos if Strauss wanted to see those.

As Morgan bids to become the first international captain to hold both International Cricket Council (ICC) 50-over and T20 World Cup trophies at the same time, much will be made of how England are a team that play in his image. Since taking over limited-overs duties before the disastrous 2015 ODI World Cup, he has overseen a successful campaign in 2019 and taken England to the top of both white-ball rankings. Ahead of their opener against West Indies on Saturday in Dubai, they are regarded as one of the favourites in the international game’s most volatile format. All of that has been his doing.

Eoin Morgan kisses the ICC Cricket World Cup trophy in 2019

The reality is, though, England are where they are not through emulating Morgan, but benefitting from his virtues. He encourages them to thrive, pulls them up when they are holding back and, when things go awry and protects them from criticism that may see them retreat into their shells. He is the reason they are who they are.

Now it seems we are at a tipping point. Those Morgan has facilitated are now beasts at his door, vying for his spot in the middle-order after one of his worst runs of form. The ones who he vouched for to become the organism brought to life through his heartbeat are close to ending his international career.

His struggles during the recently completed Indian Premier League are the reason the subject is live. Across 16 innings in the UAE – nine of which came in the restart at the end of September – he scored just 133 runs at 11.08, with two of his four ducks coming in the last month. For England this year, there have been just 82 runs at 11.71.

Those numbers have, naturally, been to the detriment of his respective sides. CricViz has devised a Batting Impact metric which is exactly as it sounds. Put simply, it measures how a batter improves their teams score: a positive number means they have influenced an innings more than if, say, a middle-of-the-road batter was in their position (zero). So far in 2021, Morgan’s batting impact in all T20s is -1.9: ergo, he has dragged his team’s scores down by 1.9. This after returning batting impacts of +7.3 and +6.5 in 2019 and 2020 – his best years according to CricViz.

Accompanying this dip has been a struggle against pace and getting into his innings, two aspects it should be said were addressed in the previous two years. In fact, there was a stage when Morgan was one of the most devastating middle-order bashers in the world. From the start of 2019 to the end of 2020, he struck a six every 8.7 deliveries. In that same period, he was striking spinners at over 152 per 100 balls.

At 35 years of age, there is a propensity to wonder if those days are behind him, even if they weren’t that long ago. That this more ponderous, less destructive Morgan is reflective of a natural decline. It also does not help that those around him in the batting order are flying.

Jonny Bairstow, once an opener, has found a new home in the engine room, while Liam Livingstone’s blockbuster summer in The Hundred has him at the forefront of short-form hitting, along with the public vote. Moeen Ali, whose T20 batting has been under-utilised by England, struck 43 off 20 in the warm-up defeat to India. In the final run out against New Zealand, where Morgan fell for 10 off 11 (albeit to a contentious umpiring decision), Sam Billings’s 27 off 17 boosted the score to 163 for six ahead of a 13-run win. Even beyond this World Cup, with Stokes’ return and the emergence of more children of Morgan, his days seem and feel numbered.

Morgan has suffered from a poor run of form with the bat

On Tuesday, Morgan addressed his lean trot and whether he deserves a place in the XI in typical fashion. There was trademark defiance: “I wouldn’t be standing here if I hadn’t come out of every bad run of form that I’ve ever had.” And not for the first time, as he relayed he would have no qualms dropping himself for the good of the team, cutthroat humility.

It would be a bold call for Morgan to do this, and also unworkable. Because by doing so England are not simply doing without a player out of form, but their captain, too. As the man himself says, “my captaincy has been pretty good”, and he can say that with certainty after leading KKR to the IPL final.

It’s also a call that will be hard to come back from, if only because in the best-case scenario, there is no return. Whoever takes his spot will carry their weight, while Buttler, groomed for one-day captaincy for some time, picks up the tactical slack with aplomb in a convincing England win, whenever it may come.

And yet it makes perfect sense the man to oust Morgan would be himself. What more poetic finale could there be than the one who set England on this fast-track to white ball greatness jumping off because he is slowing it down. Adding his body to the collateral under the wheels of this seemingly unstoppable behemoth.

It does pose another question: who, in this situation, facilitates Morgan? Who carries him out of this struggle, if only for the next month? Who shields him from the maelstrom of doubt?

The cute answer is his teammates. Those he has provided for returning the favour. But the reality is, the last thing he would want is charity.

Since his early days as an Irish and England cricketer, much of what he has achieved has come through looking after himself: a bloody-mindedness that has given him the tools to inspire others under his captaincy. Part of that has been keeping his own issues, on form or otherwise, private.

Therein lies the crux of what he is about. Others have prospered because he promotes clarity emanating from not burdening players with anything beyond their spheres. And in turn, those players focus on themselves and contribute better to the whole, occasionally breaking it for his counsel, but never by much. A very real and productive brand of altruistic selfishness.

Thus, Morgan’s problems are Morgan’s alone. He is the only person who can rectify them – and he would not have it any other way.

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