December 21, 2013

Why England need Eoin Morgan

Like Australia's Steven Smith, Morgan is unorthodox and audacious, and doesn't conform to England's straight-like thinking

Eoin Morgan has the rare magic in batting that Kevin Pietersen possesses © PA Photos

This is a tale of two Test match middle-order men. One has batted 30 times for his country, averaging 35.22, with two hundreds and five fifties. The other has marked his guard 24 times, averaging 30.43 with two hundreds and three fifties. As closer comparison, when the first of the two went out to bat for his 24th time, he took guard averaging 29, and not having made a hundred at all.

That innings came at The Oval, and it became Steven Smith's maiden century. It was a madcap knock from an offbeat player, brutal in parts, almost always deeply unorthodox. Smith, it seemed, was one of those batsmen, the sort who coaches and commentators are convinced they can work out, and yet whose flaws are somehow aesthetic rather than self-destructive ones.

He followed it up with a far better century in Perth when a series was on the line. Smith had found his place in an Australian top order like no other, an order that in turn reflects the game's new order. He joins David Warner, George Bailey and Shane Watson as men whose style and substance has been fashioned by the white ball. Of Australia's first six, only Clarke and the old-timer Rogers echo the less fluid boundaries of an older time.

It's an order that says something about the mindset of Darren Lehmann, a man who has had to think on his feet. His batting line-up came together through necessity rather than long-term planning. Like Sherlock Holmes, once he'd discarded all the other possibilities, he was left with an answer.

Cricket has a love for symmetry. For Lehmann a few months ago, read Andy Flower today. From somewhere among the wreckage of overwhelming defeat - if he decides to take it on - he must find an answer of his own.

The Flower era has run on straight lines. He is a man of rigour and order, of deep thought as well as cricketing instinct. The systems that he has put in place reflect that order: in Loughborough England have aimed at nothing less than scientifically unravelling the mysteries of the game and then finding players to fit the blueprints that they have built.

From Jonathan Trott's hundred on debut to Ben Stokes' knock in Perth, Flower's judgement has proved sound. Yet Ashes defeats bring with them their fin de siècle vibe, and there is a feeling emerging that cricket itself, with its raging schedules and its shock of the new, is moving beyond England's approach. It has always been as much about art as science, after all.

Lehmann's batting order suddenly appears more attuned to this mood music. As public reaction to Kevin Pietersen's entire career has proven, England and the English tend to mistrust and misunderstand the unorthodox.

Beneath the current England side, there is a raft of batsmen and bowlers who emerged with promise but who remain on the outside: Dernbach, Meaker, Woakes, Kieswetter, Buttler, Kerrigan, Taylor, Bopara and plenty more.

Among them is most unorthodox of all, Eoin Morgan. He remains the jewel of England's white-ball batting, an audacious match-winner with a big-time temperament, a cold-eyed killer of thrilling consistency, a finisher to be treasured.

At 27 - his prime - and with his Steven Smith-style record, he now seems as far from the Test team as a player of his ability has ever been. Judged on the empirical evidence, measured within England's straight lines, his omission is a logical decision. In a short career he has, at times, struggled against seam and spin, and he has also appeared unsure of his role.

But if the game is starting to resist straight-line thinking, can England continue to let a rare talent like Morgan's exist outside of Test cricket? He is the one player not currently in the side who has the X factor, the sprinkle of unlikely magic that only very rare batsmen possess. In that, he is like Pietersen, and he also echoes KP in his love for the full house, the big occasion. He's not the sort of player who will get himself up for county cricket. And he is one of the few players outside of Pietersen who can be imagined playing the kind of innings that Pietersen plays - both good and bad.

England are approaching a time when there will be fewer certainties in what they do. Morgan, like Smith, does not offer certainty. But he brings something that England haven't got, something that can't be manufactured, that doesn't come from systems, that puts bums on seats. For now, as Smith prospers, Morgan withers on the vine.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here