At the start of a bumper year of ODI cricket, Eoin Morgan tells Jo Harman that his transformed England side will continue to push the limits.
“The best thing that happened out of that World Cup: if you fail badly enough it causes a reaction and this World Cup has done that,” said Peter Moores in Peter Miller and Dave Tickner’s book, 28 Days Data, as he reflected on England’s miserable 2015 campaign.
It is typical of Moores to try and find a positive from such a chastening experience but, to look at the sea change in England’s approach to 50-over cricket in the two years since, in a roundabout kind of way he may have a point.
Had England beaten Bangladesh in Adelaide and gone on to lose to India in the quarter-finals, would that have been enough to spark the shift in attitude and dressing-room culture we’ve witnessed since that humiliating exit? Perhaps not. There would have been no shame in losing to India. But the scale of disappointment, with England eliminated before they had even played their final group match, demanded action. They had been exposed as being completely out of touch with the dynamic style of cricket the rest of the world were playing, and real change was required.
The speed with which England’s batsmen adapted their approach in the wake of that disappointment surprised everyone, not least Eoin Morgan. “It’s amazing, really,” England’s limited-overs captain tells AOC. “Watching our best performance or anything close to it is so refreshing and has been over the last two years. Our ultimate goal ever since we spoke before that first game at Edgbaston in the 2015 New Zealand series, which was our first game as a new squad, was to urge the players to test themselves the whole time. To shoot the lights out. Never sell yourself short. And don’t be afraid to do it.
“The acceptance that we would fall short, however many times, is fine. The amount of times that we’ve done it successfully in the last two years has probably surprised me. And the amount of times we’ve fallen away has surprised me because I thought there would have been more given there’s been a significant change.”
In the Edgbaston ODI which Morgan refers to England went past 400 for the first time in their history. The following week they passed 350 twice more. The turnaround was thrilling and instantaneous, and it’s continued since.
In 2014 England’s ODI run-rate was 5.14. Since the 2015 World Cup they have scored their runs at 6.03 runs per over – to put that figure into context the next highest run-rate in the same period is South Africa’s at 5.51. After years of inertia, how did England turn things around so quickly?
“The cricket they are playing is a reflection of the environment they’re working in,” says Angus Fraser, Middlesex’s managing director of cricket and an England selector. “You look at the environment that Trevor [Bayliss], Farby [Paul Farbrace] and Eoin have created, and it’s a braver, more positive outlook. At the last World Cup five of the current top seven were in the squad – there’s been some change in personnel but the majority of the team were available to be picked in the tournament.
Our ultimate goal ever since we spoke before that first game at Edgbaston in the 2015 New Zealand series, which was our first game as a new squad, was to urge the players to test themselves the whole time. To shoot the lights out. Never sell yourself short. And don’t be afraid to do it
“It’s fine to say things like ‘Go out there and express yourself’ – they’re easy lines that often get trotted out – but you can only do that if there’s trust within the dressing room and an environment is created where players don’t feel as though there are going to be recriminations within the group when things don’t go to plan. There’s an understanding and tolerance that it’s not going to work every time because they’re playing a high-risk game and the skills of the players are developing.”
A high run-rate doesn’t necessarily equate to victories though, and England’s recent record, while encouraging, remains patchy. Since the World Cup they have won 20 ODIs and lost 13, with five series victories and three defeats. Their batsmen have scaled new heights, and done so with impressive consistency, but their relatively inexperienced bowling attack remains hit and miss, conceding on average 5.70 runs per over since the World Cup, making it the most expensive in the world during that period. Despite these flaws, Morgan feels the team is on the right track.
“We need to be able to produce performances that win us tournaments, not just performances that win us series,” he says. “If you look back at the 2015 World Cup you could count the amount of times we scored over 350 in the lead up to it on one hand [the highest score England managed in the year leading up to the tournament was actually 316, at Perth in January 2014], whereas the top teams seemed to reel them off the whole time. Going into the tournament it was as though we had to do something different to try and win it. The process of trying to shoot the lights out is part and parcel of winning a tournament and you can actually relate that to the type of cricket we’ve played since then. That’s the process that will lead us to the end goal.”
The ultimate end goal for Morgan is the next World Cup, to be played in England in 2019. But the year ahead is a huge one for his team. If England reach the final of the ICC Champions Trophy they will play 21 ODIs this calendar year, including tours of India and the Caribbean, and home series against Ireland, South Africa and West Indies. Whereas in the past being England’s 50-over captain has at times appeared a thankless task – with key players rested and ODIs often feeling like an afterthought tacked on to the end of a Test series – the format is now a top priority, with Andrew Strauss, the ECB’s director of cricket, stating that players are likely to be rested from Test matches in order to focus on winning 50-over silverware.
To think that you can just take him [Morgan] away and it will carry on as it is, well it’s naïve in the extreme – Angus Fraser
“The outlook on it has completely changed,” says Morgan. “I remember series in the past, particularly when Alastair [Cook] was captain, and maybe half the team would be rested. I certainly remember a couple of trips to Ireland where we would take a completely new-look team.
“We always consider resting people, particularly the guys who play all three forms, but it’s quite an open chat. I’m quite honest, open and upfront with anybody I ever deal with and being on the same page as Straussy, the selectors and the coach is very important. The significance in the change of mindset to target the World Cup in 2019 is a big contributing factor in having everyone on the same page.”
Despite the progress made by his side, it’s been a challenging few months for Eoin Morgan. He had a relatively disappointing 2016 with the bat, averaging just shy of 30 for the year, and his decision to opt out of last October’s tour of Bangladesh due to security concerns attracted fierce criticism from fans and sections of the media, with Michael Vaughan claiming Morgan had made a “huge mistake”. “He won’t be able to look his players in the eye,” said the former England skipper. Nasser Hussain was also critical, saying Morgan’s decision “has to undermine his authority”.
All available evidence suggests that’s not the case, though. The mini-statement tweeted by Ben Stokes the evening it was announced that Morgan and Alex Hales would not be touring Bangladesh was powerful in its simplicity. “Please try and respect their choice,” Stokes concluded. “I do, as a colleague and a friend to them both.”
It’s immediately clear from speaking to Morgan’s teammates that they hold their captain in high regard. Sam Billings told AOC last year that Morgan has been the key factor in England’s 50-over resurgence. “A huge part of it has come from Morgs,” he said. “He just fills you with confidence as a player. Coming into the group, especially on the periphery, it makes it a lot easier that you can just come in and give it a go.”
Nonetheless, Morgan came into last month’s ODI series against India a man under pressure. His patchy form with the bat, combined with some underlying ill-feeling over his decision not to tour Bangladesh, risked undermining the progress England were making as a team. His performances in India have quietened those dissenting voices for the time being. Having found some form in the Big Bash, Morgan scored 173 runs at 58 in the three-match series, including a first ODI century in 18 months at Cuttack which took England to the brink of a scarcely believable win, only to eventually lose by 15 runs.
Fraser insists Morgan’s worth as a batsman and captain should not have been in doubt. “A lot of people seem to have it in for him at the moment,” he says. “His decision not to tour Bangladesh unearthed a lot of angles through which people want to have a go at him. There are some pretty unpleasant people out there.
“He’s actually done alright in 50-over cricket in recent times. He’s probably scored 250 runs in his last eight or nine games [before the India ODI series] at an average in the high 30s. To read some things you’d think he’s done well to get double figures. He’s a high-quality player who’s capable of winning games and as captain he’s someone who’s helped create this environment. Some people seem to think you can suddenly turn over the personnel at the top and everything stays the same. Well it doesn’t. The fact that England have played with this attitude and are playing this style of cricket… Eoin’s had a huge input into that. To think that you can just take him away and it will carry on as it is, well it’s naïve in the extreme.”
The significance in the change of mindset to target the World Cup in 2019 is a big contributing factor in having everyone on the same page
That Morgan’s place was called into question at all reflects the wealth of batting options that England have at their disposal. “We’re unbelievably fortunate,” says Morgan. “You look at somebody like Sam Billings, who’s been around since the New Zealand series and played a great role in the partnership with Jonny Bairstow at Durham that clinched it for us. He’s been in and out of the side and never been given a good run but he’s somebody who has great potential. Likewise, Ben Duckett came into the side in Bangladesh off the back of an unbelievable year and everything looks really promising from his point of view. There are others who just haven’t played. Guys are stepping up and producing performances that are worthy of a call-up but opportunities just aren’t coming. It pushes the standard of the senior team as well.”
Morgan says that as part of his commitment to an open and harmonious dressing room he encourages those within the group who aren’t making the team to ask him why. “It happens all the time. There’s not one player who sits out and takes the reason I give them. Guys want to know more. What do they have to do to get back into the side? It’s not always as simple as scoring a certain amount of runs. It can actually just be a case of waiting for an opportunity. I suppose, like in Sam’s case, it can be frustrating but you would rather that transparency between you and the players so that you’re on the same page and players aren’t going and shouting their mouth off to somebody else. Having that policy of venting or getting whatever you need to say out of your system is important because it helps to maintain that healthy atmosphere.”
A few years back, towards the end of Andy Flower’s tenure as coach, a well-established England player revealed off the record to AOC that any affection he had for ODI cricket had long since disappeared. He added that he was by no means the only player in the dressing room to feel that way. In a packed schedule, the 50-over format had become something of an inconvenience. Key players being rested only further served to highlight its second-class status and that naturally had a knock-on effect in terms of the way it was perceived by fans.
Over the past two years the winds have changed. Globally ODI cricket continues to face a serious challenge to stay relevant in a T20-dominated landscape but the thrill-seeking way in which England have played of late has brought a feel-good factor back to 50-over cricket in this country and in the process re-engaged some of the disillusioned punters who had fallen out love with it. For that, Eoin Morgan – along with Strauss, Bayliss and Farbrace – deserves enormous credit.
It helps that Morgan is so disconnected from the Test team. Whereas Cook naturally always had one eye, or more than that, on the Test side when he was ODI skipper, Morgan’s whole focus is on making England’s white-ball teams as good as they can possibly be. Recent performances indicate they could be very good indeed. Over the next six months they will have ample opportunity to prove it.
“I see this as being a huge year for us,” says Morgan. “It’s the halfway stage in the four-year cycle to the next World Cup and the Champions Trophy is in fact almost a dress rehearsal for it. If we were to play the tournament this week, I think we’d be in really good shape for it. Home advantage tends to play a part in major competitions. It is a huge opportunity.”