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."

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on January 25, 2014, 0:33 GMT

    @Smudgeon, quite right, England could have a rather tedious time of it in years to come if the only teams they are allowed to play are SA, Aus, Ind + 1 other. Gone will be the days of a mid may warm up test or two against the Sri Lankans, Kiwis, Windians and Bangladeshis. It really is a case of be careful what you wish for!

  • Mark on January 24, 2014, 22:28 GMT

    A very perceptive and well argued article. The central thesis: that such dismal performances permits a more speculative approach to selection and that Morgan is worth the risk - strikes me as sound. Similarly, the added suggestion that he has the potential to be a very good captain seems also plausible.

  • Jackie on January 24, 2014, 20:15 GMT

    A lot of fanciful stuff here. Morgan is nowhere near the Test side. There are plenty of up and coming County players who deserve a go who have good records in the championship game. Test cricket isn't thinly disguised t20. Until this Series Morgan was horribly out of form and he is very inconsistent in 50 over cricket. That doesn't matter because when it does come off his style of batting is ideal for the finisher role he specialises in. Rob Smyth isn't even listening to Morgan himself. He doesn't want to bat up the order in ODIs. He wants to stay at 5. Why? Because he can take advantage of a decent platform. In other words he likes to have the freedom to attack the ball, not rebuild an innings when you've lost top order wickets. Why doesn't Smythe and everyone else enamoured of t20 batting realise that in Test cricket other skills are needed because of the length of the game? Surely Bell demonstrated that in the summer when he kept coming in at 30-3 to save the summer Ashes?

  • Sanjay on January 24, 2014, 19:21 GMT

    Meanwhile Ravi Bopara continues to throw away the opportunities offered to him. It must be very frustrating for England fans watching this guy. Yesterday, he flailed at the 5th delivery of a quiet over. You didn't need to be Einstein to see his body language and guess correctly that he would repeat off the last ball so desperate was he to score a boundary.

    As the wise sages say, "you have more time than you think". Yet after all these international opportunities, Ravi still hasn't figured it out.

    We'll probably see Joss Buttler going up the order; yesterday, he was clearing the boundaries with ease, and with minimum risk. Fortunately for Ravi, his bowling and Essex teammate/skipper is keeping him in the team.

  • Sanjay on January 24, 2014, 19:16 GMT

    If you ever talk to neutrals, they rate Morgan and wonder why he doesn't play Tests. But that's England for you, perennially conservative. It's a miracle they have Ian Bell opening in ODIs (a good move) for this is a format where being unorthodox is the norm yet even here England have rarely used free hitting openers.

    Ironically, the ODI game has changed now to where it suits England's "build a good start, and hit out in the last 10 overs" mantra. Remember the days when Jayasuriya etc were opening? Those were the days where you had to make the most of the first 15 overs yet England were in a time warp.

    And so onto Tests; agree with Rob that Morgan should be in whites. The guarantees that Rob discusses should be offered to all players making their debut, England make judgments far too quickly esp against players who possess such quick hands and reflexes that even a spectator with little cricket experience can distinguish the attributes.

  • Samuel on January 24, 2014, 18:39 GMT

    @Nicholas Mayo - and therein lies the problem. Whilst I thought this was a good article and definitely has a point, for me Mogs has to show he's committed to the red ball game and actually play some Championship cricket. Never really bought his argument that he thinks the IPL is his best way back into the Test side - nothing against the IPL and Mogs is fully entitled to go there, but tell the truth: you're there to get a good amount of money and play good cricket alongside the best in the world, not try to get back in a Test match side! If he's serious about playing Test cricket, and I think after this winter he realises he has a good chance of doing so, then he might have to put Middlesex in the Championship first this year. If he gets back in the Test side, then maybe he can head back to the IPL.

  • SR on January 24, 2014, 17:16 GMT

    Finally, someone speaks with some common sense! The George Bailey comparison, I understand, but if you look at Australia, they also have the likes of David Warner, Shane Watson, Brad Haddin, all exciting cricketers who can take an innings by the scruff of its neck. Eoin Morgan is an exciting batsman and is needed in the English middle order in the test side. If Trott, who I am glad to hear is in "fine fettle," does come back for the summer test series, can you imagine a line up of Cook, Compton/Root, Trott as 1,2,3? It might be better watching paint dry. England needs the likes of KP, Morgan and Buttler in the test side. Imagine a test line up that includes those three and Stokes. England batting will be exciting again. I know, excitement is anathema to Andy Flower, Cook and the ECB. Blaming Morgan for England's woes against Pakistan in UAE was utter nonsense. The entire side failed and they used Morgan as a scapegoat. He has much to offer to the test side.

  • Dummy4 on January 24, 2014, 15:44 GMT

    Looking at the scoring rates. is it possible that England were scoring quickly because they were successful not scoring quickly making them successful? in 2011 England racked up huge totals with players making big scores. The Era of Daddy Hundreds, other than Cook Test batmen tend to go though the gears so score faster the more runs they have. Which raises the average, now the players are not making runs so are not increasing their strike rate later.

    On Morgan, 13 test at 30 isn't awful and he was the fall guy for the Pakistan whitewash because he was "suppose" to be about to play spin. The issues for me is the amount of first class cricket he plays. The red ball is different to the white ball it does more. If he scored some runs early in the county season I would pick him but he will be sat on an an IPL bench

  • Dummy4 on January 24, 2014, 15:20 GMT

    I think it would be foolish of the selectors to not give a player of Morgan's talent another chance in the test setup. He clearly has the ability to perform at that level and it would surely shine through if he were given a run in the side. I could see him playing a similar role to that which Pietersen did in his pomp, and that coincided with a period of great success for England, often due to KP's contributions. The value of a match winner like Morgan should not be underestimated.

  • wayne on January 24, 2014, 14:06 GMT

    "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." is somewhat hinging on the fact that England have hit rock bottom: far from it! There's plenty further they could fall in this era when "I'm not allowed to be relegated" isn't (yet) a reality. However, the general gist of the article is true: when you've been thumped not only on the field, but off it, you have an opportunity to take risks and try something new. I wouldn't mind seeing a more aggressive mindset from England. Stokes has it, Buttler has it, Eoin Morgan has it - backbone of a renewed Test team? After all, England saw up front in their last 5 tests what a less-talented team with an aggressive attitude, hunger, and a few blunt weapons can do on the field. Time to change things up a bit and see if it works out. If it fails, they can always go back to stodgy, attritional cricket (never really goes out of fashion, does it?)

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