Under captain Eoin Morgan the hosts have become a fearless batting team capable of taking any bowling unit apart. The flip side is that they can also crash and burn.
Eoin Morgan has always been a man apart. He grew up in an area of Dublin that regarded cricket as the devil’s work. He excised Coke and crisps from his diet at an age when most boys lived off the stuff. He was, say coaches, miles ahead of his peers on the subject of tactics. And then of course, he switched countries, calmly reasoning that Ireland would not provide him with the opportunities he could find in England.
Good luck telling him he should have stuck with the land of his forefathers: he’ll look at you as if you’ve suggested the Pope’s a protestant.
Morgan’s greatest strength, then, is his pragmatism. He’s a brilliant batsman, too – a trendsetter at first, but now a veteran capable of holding his own amid the big-hitting young bucks. But it’s the pragmatism, as much as the reverse sweeps, that has defined his career. And, come 14 July at Lord’s, no England fan will be objecting to his Irish brogue if he is lifting the World Cup on their behalf.
Thanks in the main to Morgan, this isn’t the fantasy it appeared when he was handed the job at hopelessly short notice before the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Alastair Cook had been sacked as one-day captain not long after a demoralising 5-2 defeat in Sri Lanka, saddling his successor with a team that had failed to adapt to the brave new world of 50-over aggression. Morgan could do little to avert a disaster, culminating in a 15-run defeat by Bangladesh in Adelaide. He made a duck, and must have wondered if he had been gifted the most poisoned chalice in sport.
It would be an exaggeration to say the rest is history, because Morgan’s England are yet to win any silverware, beyond the instantly forgettable baubles awarded after a bilateral series. But history is something his team have made a pretty good stab at creating. And they have done it because Morgan has been allowed by coach Trevor Bayliss – who replaced Peter Moores not long after the World Cup debacle – to impose his own clear-sighted vision.
In essence, Morgan expects his batsmen to attack. And he expects them to attack, especially when they’re unsure whether to attack.
In the old days (anything before 2015), England’s white-ball batsmen would react to doubt by retreating into their shells, taking refuge in the national tendency to regard one-day cricket as a perversion of the real thing. There was no situation that could not be made better by a solid forward defensive and a high left elbow.
When Mike Gatting fell to a reverse sweep at a pivotal moment of the 1987 World Cup final against Australia at Eden Gardens, it simply confirmed for the English cricket establishment that nothing good could come of innovation. The suspicion took years to shake off. Meanwhile, the rest of the world waltzed ahead: pinch-hitters, mystery spinners, ambidextrous batsmen – these were too exotic for English tastes. Test cricket: now there was a sport …
Helped by his status as an outsider, Morgan – like the Pietermaritzburg-born Kevin Pietersen – did not have this distrust of lateral thought in his DNA. His logic was simple: if you enjoy playing the reverse sweep, you should play it. No one will shout at you if it costs you your wicket.
Suddenly, England had a licence to thrill. The old fear of failure was replaced by the fear of leaving your best strokes in the dressing room. Pietersen had been preaching this for years. But Morgan has a lighter touch – and his players were in the mood to listen. They liked what they heard. The impact was instant.
In England’s first ODI after the 2015 World Cup – bar a rained-off game in Dublin that coincided with the sacking of Moores – they scored 408-9 against New Zealand at Edgbaston, and won by 210 runs. It was the first of five totals of 400 or more scored by England in the last four years, a tally that includes two world records. Against Australia at Trent Bridge last year, they looked set to reach 500 before a late stumble. Over the same period, the rest of the world – including the star-studded Indians – have managed one 400-plus score between them.
In that time, England have won 53 of their 77 completed ODIs, and 15 of their 19 series (excluding one-off matches). When they drew 2-2 earlier this year in the Caribbean, it was the first time in 10 they had not won a bilateral series, a sequence stretching back more than two years. They are top of the ICC rankings, and the only team between World Cups to have scored at quicker than a run a ball.
Indian captain Virat Kohli remains the one-day batsman par excellence, but England have consistently been the team to watch. If it grieves some to admit as much, that may be because old habits die hard: since reaching the last of their three World Cup finals in 1992, England’s white-ball cricket has been reliably hopeless. Until now.
Early on, Morgan made an important statement about his approach. In the third game of that high-scoring series against the New Zealanders, England – batting first at Southampton – were bowled out for 302 with 28 balls of their allocation unused. Up in the commentary box, it was too much for the old pros to bear: for them, the first rule of limited-overs cricket was to make full use of your overs. When New Zealand chased down the runs, they felt vindicated.
Morgan was having none of it. He wanted his team to keep attacking. The logic was sound, even if it infuriated the old-timers: better to lose five for 14 in no time at all, as England did that day, than, say, three for 10 spread across eight overs. It was a crucial insight. Morgan was telling his players that things may not always go according to plan, but he’d rather they went wrong on the attack than in defence: get out caught at long-on, not shouldering arms. Over a period of time, he suggested, it was a philosophy that would produce more victories than defeats.
Despite England’s transformation from a one-day laughing stock to a team capable of lifting their first World Cup on home soil this summer, there are still a few critics who are happy to seize on their occasional meltdowns. And it’s true those meltdowns can be spectacular.
Against South Africa at Lord’s in 2017, England slumped to 20-6. In Colombo last October, they lost to Sri Lanka by 219 runs. In St Lucia in March, West Indies skittled them for 113, before Chris Gayle helped knock off the runs in 12.1 overs. In moments such as these, the old voices can be heard urging caution. Gauge the conditions, they say. Rein in your instincts. Respect the game. Cricket, they would intone gravely, has a way of biting you on the backside – as if it were a living entity, forever reminding the players who’s boss.
Morgan knows that England did try to rein in their instincts once, with dismal consequences, and at the worst possible moment. At the Champions Trophy semi-final against Pakistan in Cardiff in 2017, Morgan’s side got it into their heads that the pitch was a stinker. The captain himself made 33 off 53 balls, and Ben Stokes – of all people – ground out 34 in 64. When Pakistan chased down their target of 212 with eight wickets and nearly 13 overs to spare, it was clear England had been guilty of misjudgement.
Worse, they had choked – and were spared the tag only because the world long ago decided it belonged exclusively to South Africa. But choked is precisely what England had done, just as they had in the 2013 Champions Trophy final against India at Edgbaston, where they needed 20 off 16 balls with six wickets in hand, and lost by five runs.
And that is why Morgan’s icy coolness will be crucial at this year’s World Cup. If and when England find themselves in a vital game, it must be their captain’s voice they hear on their shoulder, not the demons of Cardiff. Morgan knows he has the weapons: the likes of Jason Roy, Jos Buttler and Stokes can dismantle any attack in the world. But he must ensure they fire under pressure.
It’s why he has never entertained any notion of telling his batsmen to calm down. England’s World Cup campaigns have often been disrupted at the last minute. The worst thing they could possibly do now would be to abandon the gung-ho approach that has rewritten the record books.
Even if England do go down in flames, their fans should remember what allowed the team to soar in the first place. It wasn’t the high left elbow that held back previous generations: it was the willingness to stick two fingers up at orthodoxy. Win or lose this summer, it’s been one hell of a ride.
This article was written by Lawrence Booth in the latest issue of SA Cricket magazine.
Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images