The Middlesex quartet
Phil Hughes’s early-season stint as Murali Kartik’s stand-in has finished and England’s limited-over squad has gathered, which results in the dispersal of Middlesex’s remarkable quartet of unorthodox batsmen – Hughes, Owais Shah, Eoin Morgan and Dawid Malan.
Born in four different countries and learning their cricket in a slightly different set of four countries, they have independently arrived at the conclusion that the stance in which they take guard is merely a take-off point. The conventional batsman does no more than go forward or back, and possibly move his front leg outside off stump to prevent the lbw, but when the ball is delivered, these four go a-roaming in search of the best place to play the shot they intend. There are a fair number of such batsmen these days, but it is rare to see virtually a whole top order made up of these crease-gypsies. Not that these four have much more in common – each has a highly individual style.
So far, two of them have made it to the highest level. The left-handed Hughes likes to back away and smash the ball through the off side while the right-handed Shah glides across his stumps to hit leg-side boundaries, so when the two bat together a captain can set an 8-1 field which doesn’t have to change over when the batsmen run a single. Hughes has successfully deployed this technique – or lack of it – in Test cricket; Shah has become a key member of the England ODI team by moving about in his crease but curbs his wanderlust in Tests, a self-imposed restriction which may lie at the heart of his relative failure in five-day cricket.
Malan, while born in Roehampton, grew up in South Africa and is not England-qualified for another few months, while Morgan has so far played ODIs for Ireland with very little to show for them - only the eagle-eyed will have noticed the 91 runs he amassed in nine games at the last World Cup. Both, though, could well become stars of the future.
Malan is the more normal of the two since he plays recognisable cricket shots, even if from positions in which ultra-correct batsmen like Peter May, Geoff Boycott or Greg Chappell would never have been seen dead. He caught the national eye last year in the Twenty20 Cup quarter-final . Most people turned on their TVs to see Fred Flintoff making one of his many comebacks and were rewarded with a rollicking half-century and a three-wicket haul from the megastar, but it was Malan’s astonishing 54-ball 103 which powered Middlesex through to Finals day and persuaded the England selectors to include him in their Performance Squad of up-and-coming players.
Morgan, though, is on the verge of making his England debut. If he does well, A&E units around the country will be overwhelmed by people coming in complaining of jaws dropping so fast that they break.
A couple of weeks ago, the Sky commentators were stunned by one of his boundaries very fine on the leg side: alien to the cricket canon, the shot would have been instantly recognisable to a hockey player as a blind-side backward pass. For Morgan’s first experience of hitting balls with wooden things came in the Irish game of hurling, which bears the same sort of relationship to hockey as Australian Rules does to football in that the ball spends most of its time flying around at chest height rather than zipping along the ground. Hurlers acquire an extraordinary flexibility in spinning round and hitting the moving ball in all sorts of directions: Morgan has translated this to cricket and come up with what may be a unique style.
Time and again when watching him, you see a smooth and effortless stroke and instinctively applaud the boundary but then scratch your head and wonder how on earth he accomplished it. At least in the domestic Twenty20 there is a big replay screen available to assist in deciphering what happened, for without one it is nigh-on impossible for cricket-trained senses to apprehend it.
Except, perhaps, for elderly Middlesex members whose memories stretch back sixty years. Though coming from a very different background, Morgan’s inventiveness is perhaps best likened to that of the grandfather of another current Middlesex player and sometime Cricinfo blogger: I fancy Denis Compton looks down at Morgan from the great pavilion in the sky and raises an approving glass to his spiritual heir.