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Welcome to The Spin, the Guardian’s weekly (and free) cricket newsletter. Here’s an extract from this week’s edition. To receive the full version every Wednesday, just pop your email in below:
Eoin Morgan is a unique figure in cricket history, an Irish revolutionary who became one of England’s all-time greats. That status was sealed when he lifted the World Cup in 2019. It was a thrilling achievement but it did only happen by the barest of margins – or, as he called it, “the rub of the green”. There is a better reason to put Morgan in the pantheon. He was simply the best of England’s one-day captains, the Brearley of the blitzkrieg.
There was nothing rum about captain Morgan. He was a man with a plan. If this sounds basic, it was beyond some of his predecessors – including even Mike Brearley, who blew a World Cup final by batting too slowly. Morgan’s plan was dead simple: to score faster than the opposition. The batters were there to hand out batterings, the bowlers to take wickets.
In the seven and a half years of his regime, England became the most successful ODI team in the world, winning 82 matches and losing 37 (including those he was absent for). In the previous seven and a half years, they had been eighth in the world (among nations playing regularly) with 79 wins and 78 losses. So Morgan made them twice as good. In T20 his impact was less dramatic, but England still went from seventh among the big fish to third behind India and Pakistan. And they only missed out on a World Cup because of some almighty hitting from Carlos Brathwaite.
A man with a plan has to hold his nerve. Morgan’s was tested in 2015, his first home summer as captain, against New Zealand at Southampton just after breaking the 400 barrier. Bowled out for 302 from 45.2 of their 50 overs, they lost, even though NZ proceeded more sedately. The received wisdom said it was a crime not to use your quota; Morgan begged to differ. “I’m proud of the way the guys played with a positive mindset,” he said. “We did a lot of things right with the bat today.” He stuck to his guns, and the guns kept on blazing. England lifted the world record to 444 in 2016, 481 in 2018 (against Australia) and 498 the other day. Under the previous captain, Alastair Cook, they never passed 325.
Morgan ended up as an unofficial player-manager. On his watch, it hardly mattered who was the England coach. When the cagey Chris Silverwood succeeded the easygoing Trevor Bayliss in autumn 2019, Joe Root’s Test team went into their shell while Morgan’s blasters just carried on shelling their opponents.
He wasn’t totally gung-ho: he relied heavily on Root’s classicism, deploying him as the designated driver. In the field he was capable of defending, sometimes posting three slips, more often none. His attack was varied: swing from Chris Woakes, wheels from Mark Wood and Jofra Archer, googlies from Adil Rashid, off-breaks from Moeen Ali. Latterly Morgan fell in love with left-arm seamers, taking five of them to the Netherlands. The good old right-arm seamer, an England staple since time immemorial, became almost obsolete. Stuart Broad played only 13 ODIs under Morgan, averaging 59 with the ball rather than his usual 28.
Faced with issues that bedevilled the Test squad, Morgan dispatched them like a bad ball. Broad and Jimmy Anderson were put out to pasture years ago (which also enhanced the Test team). Root automatically batted at No 3. Jonny Bairstow was licensed to thrill 10 years before a Test captain had the same idea. Jos Buttler, a keeper in every sense of the word, grew into a superstar. Rashid was a mainstay, so the team was always multicultural. Amid the World Cup euphoria, Morgan stayed cool enough to say, cannily, “we had Allah with us”.
Good captains bring faith, hope and clarity. So far, Ben Stokes has been big on all three. Morgan majored on the faith – staying loyal to his stars, especially the hot-and-cold Jason Roy – and the clarity. His imprint shone out even when he wasn’t there. A year ago, before an ODI series against Pakistan, he and his whole squad were ruled out by Covid protocols. Stokes grabbed the reins and got a cast of understudies to mimic the men they replaced. They won 3-0, foreshadowing this month’s Test whitewash of New Zealand. Morgan had done so well that he had made himself redundant.
We cricket writers go on about the need for consistency while seldom applying it to captains. It’s a big ask for a batter (just look at Morgan, more susceptible than most to a bad patch), but a bare minimum from a boss in any walk of life. Rule by whim is just waving your ego around. Ruling by consistency, giving a reason for your answer, means everyone knows what they’re doing.
There are still some cricket lovers, unbelievably, who dismiss the one-day game as hit-and-giggle. Morgan was certainly a hitter – his 202 sixes in ODIs are a runaway England record, more than Stokes (88) and Andrew Flintoff (92) put together – but far from a giggler. When the camera zoomed in he was usually poker faced, sometimes stern, always in control. He could be hard on his men: Liam Plunkett was pensioned off the minute his bang-it-in bowling had helped to win the World Cup, Alex Hales was ostracised for being an idiot and ignored for three years (so far). He might have got less from a stuffy Lord’s tribunal.
But any blots on the copybook are faint ones. Morgan didn’t just captain a team, or two: he created a culture. The squad he inherited from Cook was boring and bad, whereas the one he hands on is entertaining and excellent. We could not have asked for more.