January 24, 2014

Eoin Morgan's time is here

England are in a position where failure is nothing to be afraid of and they must realise his potential impact as an aggressor in the middle order

Eoin Morgan: a potential middle-order menace © AFP

England's brutalisation of a fine South Africa side at The Oval in 1994 has a strong case for being their most devastating performance of modern times. While it is rightly remembered for Devon Malcolm's 9 for 57, it was catalysed the previous evening by the unfettered slogging of Phil DeFreitas and Darren Gough. With England struggling and apparently heading for a 2-0 series defeat, they responded with what the Guardian's Matthew Engel described as "brilliant oh-bugger-it batting".

This may be the time for the current England Test side to say, "Oh bugger it". It is why they must seriously consider restoring Eoin Morgan to the Test team as a middle-order batsman and perhaps even as captain. For five largely successful years they have played controlled, emotionless cricket, to such an extent that they have been accused of being automata.

After the definitive humiliation in Australia, it feels like time for a change, particularly in the batting. The lack of runs has been discussed at length; not unrelated, surely, is the dramatic decline in their speed of scoring. In 2013, England scored their runs at 2.85 per over. It's their lowest scoring rate in a calendar year since 2000, when Test cricket was an entirely different game, and almost a run per over (or 90 runs a day) down on the 3.81 they managed in 2011. (They also scored at 3.42 in 2010 and 3.56 in 2009.) The need will be even greater should they dispense with Kevin Pietersen. England's two best sides of modern times - 2004-05 and 2010-11 - are also their fastest scoring. It is not a coincidence.

In an age where perception is king, England do not just need actual change - they need symbolic change, and the selection of Morgan ahead of safer candidates would provide that. Even Morgan would acknowledge that there are considerable risks in picking him. He has failed to prove himself in first-class cricket and has barely even played it of late, with just nine games in two years since he was dropped from the England Test team. He struggled in his first spell as a Test batsman, averaging 30.43 from 14 matches. He can look vulnerable outside off stump, and the dropping of George Bailey this week was yet another reminder that one-day specialism is no guarantee of five-day success.

At the best of times, never mind in their current situation, would it really be wise for England to die wondering whether Morgan could have made it at Test level?

Against that, England are in a position where failure is nothing to be afraid of. In a strange way these are the most exciting times. England have a blank canvas and a free pass; whatever happens in the next two years, it cannot be nearly as bad as what they have experienced this winter. It is inevitable that a decent proportion of the batsmen they try over the next few years will fail, so why not try the most talented of them all. For all the reason and discourse and analysis, one thought keeps muscling to the front of the queue: Morgan is bloody brilliant. His potential impact as an aggressor at No. 5 legitimises the risk of failure.

He came into a different team in 2010-11, when the other batsmen were scoring huge centuries at will. In one sense that reduced the pressure; in another the excellence of others was so intimidating as to increase the pressure he put on himself. Morgan did provide some examples of his Test potential with a few counterpunching 70s and particularly a high-class maiden Test century against Pakistan at Trent Bridge, helping England recover from 118 for 4 on the first day of the series.

Thereafter he struggled in a series in which the ball talked, one of a few mitigating circumstances for his modest performance first time around. A couple of declaration slogs reduced his average. During the return series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, his last as a Test player, he was woefully out of form and had developed an excessive crouch at the crease. Against that, his second Test century, as England racked up 700 against a broken India, was close to a freebie.

A weakness outside off stump was not as significant as a cluttered mind. Morgan's biggest problem seemed to be a preoccupation with how a Test match batsman should be seen to play, like a radio commentator trying to adjust to TV or a tabloid writer moving to a broadsheet. He did not trust his instinct. The balance can be deceptively hard to find, although for every Bailey there is a David Warner, a one-day success who, while acknowledging the different nature of Test cricket, does not adapt his game too much. If Morgan does return he should be told that there will no short-term repercussions even if he is out for nought hooking or reverse- sweeping.

Even though he was relatively restrained, and scored relatively few runs, they came at a strike rate of 54.77. Pietersen and Matt Prior are the only top-seven batsmen currently available to England whose scoring rate exceeds that. It is logical that the more runs you score, the faster you will score them; thus Morgan has the capacity to be a significant middle-order menace. After a modest 2013 in the one-day game, he has rediscovered the exhilarating authority that makes him one of the best and most watchable limited-overs batsmen in the world. At the best of times, never mind in their current situation, would it really be wise for England to die wondering whether he could have made it at Test level?

They could go even further and make him captain. This will happen over Andy Flower's dead body, of course, but it is an idea that at least merits consideration. The guilty pleasure of England's return to the darker days of the late 1980s is that we can revisit the climate of those times and have fun with the most extravagant and romantic selection suggestions: Glen Chapple as captain, pensioning off anyone over the age of 25, picking the man at the top of the county averages and so on.

Morgan as captain isn't quite such an extreme idea. His aptitude for captaincy has been widely acknowledged in reference to his possible succession of Alastair Cook in the one-day game: he is imaginative, inscrutable and extremely tough. The concern is his batting. The captaincy may inhibit him further, or it may make him more comfortable in an alien environment and empower him to play with the aggression and arrogance that comes naturally in one-day cricket. Nobody really knows.

What we do know is that failure is nothing to be afraid of any more. If Morgan is an unsuccessful captain for 18 months, little would be lost. We also know that - and this is far from a best-case scenario - a scenario in which Morgan averages 30 and captains impressively and Cook averages 45 in the ranks is preferable to Cook averaging 30 while captaining modestly and someone like Gary Ballance averaging 40 in the middle order.

In part, this is an issue of perception. Certain types of failure are acceptable. The captain who bats first and sees his team dismissed for 100 is rarely criticised, the captain who bowls first and sees his team concede 500 (or even 407) takes it to the grave. The captain who concedes umpteen boundaries by not having a third man is slaughtered; the captain who does so by not having a cover sweeper escapes. Conventional thinking is fine and useful in most circumstances. Yet sometimes outside the box lie rare gems. And sometimes you reach a point where you have to say, "Oh bugger it."