February 29, 2012

It's all up to Morgan

For much of his career, Eoin Morgan has had the door opened welcomingly wide for him. No longer

As two dazzling, attacking shot-players, Eoin Morgan and Kevin Pietersen are often talked about in the same breath. Indeed, they are the two top batsmen in the World T20 rankings. But there the similarities end.

I am not referring to their diverging current form. Pietersen has confirmed a spectacular return to form, with two ODI hundreds and a match-winning 62 not out in the deciding T20. Morgan, in contrast, has struggled this winter and been omitted from the England Test squad that will play Sri Lanka.

No, the deeper differences are more revealing. Pietersen is a natural outsider who has had to make his own way; Morgan has always benefitted from the smiles and support of the cricketing establishment. Pietersen forced his way into international cricket through sheer weight of runs; Morgan was hand-picked as a potential star. Pietersen's critics have always been waiting for him to fail; Morgan's many admirers have always made the most of his successes.

Pietersen came from a great cricketing culture, South Africa, where he never broke through. Even in Natal, he was not earmarked for future greatness. In coming to England to pursue a better cricketing future, Pietersen made himself doubly an outsider - the foreigner determined to achieve greatness among an adopted people.

Morgan, in contrast, is the lauded favourite son of Irish cricket. He has always been the brightest star in a small galaxy. Not for him the waiting and wondering if he would make the grade. Irish cricket has been spreading the word about Morgan - that he was a phenomenal talent - from his teenage years.

In 2007, Middlesex played Ireland in Dublin. Ironically, two of Middlesex's best players were Irish - Morgan and Ed Joyce - so it was a homecoming of sorts for them. Though Joyce was the older, more senior figure, it was Morgan who bestrode the scene. He was a different man in Ireland; he was top dog and he knew it. In time, Middlesex and England fans also came to know and admire that cocksure character.

But if we dig a little deeper, the Morgan story is less conclusive that it first appears. When he was first selected for England in 2009, Morgan had already proved certain things in county cricket. We knew that few players (if any) have a greater natural ability to strike the ball with immense power derived from timing rather than brute strength. We knew that he had an instinctive feel for one-day and T20 cricket, a hunter's thrill of the chase and a showman's love for the stage. We knew that his outward demeanour was apparently confident and yet hard to read.

We also knew - if anyone cared to look at the numbers - that his first-class record was unremarkable (he averaged in the mid-30s) and that his temperament had rarely been tested in circumstances that didn't suit him.

Now, three years later, our knowledge of Morgan has not advanced all that much. Yes, we have learnt that he was not phased or overawed by international cricket. But few thought he would be.

In more substantive terms, Morgan has succeeded at things he was always good at, and struggled at disciplines that do not come easily to him. Morgan's instant successes in international T20 and ODI cricket reflected his dominant reputation in those two formats in county cricket. In the same way, his relative lack of success in Test cricket reflects his track record in all first-class cricket.

Sport gets harder in many respects, and the sportsmen who thrive in the long term are those who have the personality to take more of the weight on their own shoulders. Ultimately a great player must be his own problem-solver, therapist and coach

We are about to learn a lot more about Morgan. This is the first time in his cricketing life that he has been on the outside. Until now, he has been the beneficiary of a never-ending fast track - the path ahead constantly being cleared for him. At Middlesex the coaching staff fretted about anything that might "hold Morgan back", even when his first-class numbers did not demand selection. One coach used to begin selection meetings by asking, "How are we going to get Morgan into the team?" As though Morgan himself shouldn't have to worry about the troublesome details of getting runs and making his own case. England, too, picked him at the first available opportunity.

Well, the era of fast-tracking and "how are we going to get Morgan into the team?" just ended. For now, he is on his own, armed with just a bat and his dazzling skills. He will have to make his own way back. The door is far from closed. But nor is it permanently wide open.

Great players in every sport will tell you that it is much harder to stay at the very top than it is to get there in the first place. The same point can be phrased differently. As sportsmen get older, they have to become ever more self-reliant. The support systems drop away, one by one, leaving you standing alone. Adoring coaches who were once enamoured of sheer talent become frustrated by the failure to convert talent into performance; team-mates who once sensed a star in the making begin to expect games to be won, not merely adorned; fans are no longer thrilled by what you can do, but increasingly annoyed by what you cannot.

Sport gets harder in many respects, and the sportsmen who thrive in the long term are those who have the personality to take more of the weight on their own shoulders. Ultimately a great player must be his own problem-solver, therapist and coach. That revolves around character, not talent.

Many people - including me - believe Morgan is one of the most gifted cricketers in the world. In my new book I wanted to explore the careers of a couple of athletes - drawn from all sports - who had been blessed with truly remarkable talent. The two examples I used were Roger Federer and Morgan.

Morgan has already proved me right about his talent. Now comes the interesting part: what is he going to do with it?

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is published in March 2012. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Amjad on March 3, 2012, 7:35 GMT

    I think its wonderful for people to come to england and play cricket there. I think england have genuine love for the sport. It is perfectly all right for anyone to chose to play in any country regardless of their race, nationality or ethnicity. Hats off to england the only real true home of cricket. pak fan here.

  • John on March 3, 2012, 5:29 GMT

    @zenboomerang; Maybe you should read my whole comment before responding. I agree that Morgan isn't a good enough player in the long format to deserve a place. I don't believe Cowan, Marsh and Forrest are good enough to be Australian test players either, but two of them have been already and do you want to bet Forrest won't get a look fairly soon? As for averages, Morgan 30 test, 36 FC; March 27 test, 37 FC; Forrest no tests yet, but 36 FC. Cowan is slightly better with 41 FC, but only 34 test and he's only played in Australia against India. That seems pretty comparable to me, especially as Morgan is the youngest of the 4- Cowan is nearly 30. Jonesy sledges, because he has nothing to back up his absurd comments. I tell it like it is, and produce the figures to back it up and when an England player doesn't deserve a place, like Morgan, I say so. If you don't like it, don't blame me

  • Steve on March 2, 2012, 16:18 GMT

    Jonesy2 is ranting again! If England are so bad then what must Australia be? Maybe they shouldn't be allowed to play test cricket until they reach the desired standard? Of course not.... but they are significantly behind England at the test level - just remember all the recent Ashes drubbings England have handed out? England are World T20 champions and there are even signs that they might be getting their act together in the ODI format. Maybe after Sri Lanka also humiliate Australia Jonesy2 will return to planet Earth? Although true cricket fans will miss his deluded rants! COME ON ENGLAND!!!

  • Rod on March 1, 2012, 20:06 GMT

    Ed Smith, dear oh dear, comparing Morgan with Federer is like comparing a Bugatti Veyron with a Lada. Yes they're both cars but that's where the comparison ends. I've also read his article about Warner. Ed obviously knows his cricket! The problem with Morgan, Warner and the likes of Cowan is poor technique. All 3 have bats coming down from second slip when playing balls on or outside off stump creating a massive gap between bat and pad. No doubt they've got good eyes but poor techniques will never allow them to score runs consistently against good quality bowling. As for jonesy2 comments about England's cricketers having no talent? He's obviously been deluded by Australia's success against the lamest Indian attack there's been for ages. He won't be seeing any Ponting double hundreds or Clarke treble hundreds in next years Ashes! Anderson, Broad, Tremlett, Finn, Bresnan and Swann will make sure of that. Just like they did last time and I almost forgot, the time before that!

  • Bryn on March 1, 2012, 15:02 GMT

    joshy johnson, england best in the world? at what? making a fool of themselves in pretty much every sporting arena? im just hope that they dont balls up the olympics. alright im done now. ed smith, cheers for the laughs

  • Roo on March 1, 2012, 5:33 GMT

    @landl47 :- "Morgan's first-class average is about 36, so he's in the same kind of bracket as Marsh, Cowan and Forrest"... Your usual backhandedl sledging comments :) ... Marsh has been dropped after 7 Tests @27 with his last 4 @under3... Forrest yet to play Test for Oz... Cowan only 4 Tests @34 (FC @40)... Morgan 16 Tests @30 - yeah good comparisons... :P... Morgan IPL 13 innings @14 - yeah really loves playing in the subcontinent... aka why he was dropped after UAE tour... I should just leave you & jonesy to troll to each other...

  • Bryn on March 1, 2012, 5:19 GMT

    Cricket_Unlimited -- exactly, he is identical to pieterson, neither can play.

  • Dummy4 on March 1, 2012, 1:40 GMT

    Listen to all you hypocrites insulting England for having players not from England. Are we all living under Nazi reign or something? If anything it shows how respectful English cricket is to culture. Get a grip and stop hating the England team because they have some foreign born players when you really hate them because they are the best team in the world at the moment and you are just struggling to accept that.

  • Andrew on March 1, 2012, 0:40 GMT

    IMO - he can make it, the obvious comparison with Morgan is M Bevan. Bevan was a master of ODI's in particular chases, but his test career never got off the ground (except as a spin bowling all rounder @ #8). If he can succeed in ODIs - he should be able to do well in tests, it is really down to application.

  • Pan on March 1, 2012, 0:18 GMT

    Don't mean to digress from the article itself, but many comments on here miss the point (maybe Ed Smith is just too intelligent for this). Not a great human being because he chose to play Test cricket instead of staying loyal to his birthplace? Oh, right, so if Ireland get thier test place in 2020, as they aim to (but I guess won't, for too many reasons to go into here), he should wait till he's 34 to (maybe) play tests? If you were from Namibia & S.A wanted you, and you're obviously good enough to play at a higher level, for more money, and play tests instead of for pointless trophy's, you'd say "no thanks"? You wouldn't, would you? About averages, see my last post. About Federer, maybe read the book itself before assuming he's saying they're equally as good. About not being English, what do you want England to do? Stop being a culturally diverse society? Stop selectors from being allowed to pick the best 11 (in thier opinion) available? Technique comments fair though.

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