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Player of the Match
Player of the Match

Carefree Eoin Morgan ready for switch from Blast's main critic to its biggest star

Eoin Morgan has been a long-standing critic of the Blast Getty Images

Eoin Morgan is smiling broadly these days and protesting his undying love for Middlesex. Life as a World Cup-winning captain looks pretty cool. That is enough reason to suspect that a Notts side which has reached the knockout stages of the Vitality Blast nine times in ten years could have their work cut out in the second quarter-final at Trent Bridge on Thursday.

Morgan has rarely looked as relaxed as he did after playing one of the most destructive innings in this summer's tournament to take Middlesex into the quarter-finals, and eliminate Somerset in the process.

Opponents have learned to fear him when he is in single-minded mode. Perhaps he is even more dangerous when he hasn't got a care in the world.

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"I love playing for Middlesex," he beamed to the TV cameras after his unbeaten 83 from 29 had swept Middlesex to a record chase at Taunton, Somerset's 226 for 5 nailed with three overs to spare.

It was intriguing to imagine his state of mind. Was he driving Middlesex closer to a Finals Day in a tournament that will now consume his attention for the rest of the summer or did his disdainful burst of strokeplay encapsulate his carefree attitude towards a county competition that he has occasionally taken the chance to disparage?

Morgan, self-assured and self-sufficient, has successfully revolutionised England's approach to limited-overs cricket. His stock is considerable and rightly so. His Taunton innings continued his memorable summer and, if it helps persuade him to abandon thoughts of retirement and instead to lead England in World T20 in Australia in late 2020, then a good thing too.

But putting aside his assertion that he loves playing for Middlesex, which has not always been apparent, he certainly has no love for the Blast. His loyalty is to The Hundred, the competition that is due to overshadow it - perhaps overwhelm it - in 2019. As far as the ECB is concerned, he could not be more on message.

"Whether it's The Hundred, 10 or 20 overs, we need one franchise-based tournament, with fewer teams, in order to consistently sell the game to the country," he said in July. "Anybody I speak to who loves sport but doesn't necessarily love cricket is crying out for a tournament that they understand, because 18 teams going for a long period of time does not make sense to anybody."

Nobody interjected at that time that not only 18, but 20 teams, going for a long period of time did make sense to millions and was called the Premier League. Instead, he was asked if that view meant he would favour scrapping the Blast. "I'm not making the decisions, but…." was his reply.

For advocates of county cricket, that "but" did not go unnoticed. There is an inescapable irony that the most high-profile player in the final stages of the Blast (with apologies to AB de Villiers) is also one of its greatest critics.

But that did not prevent Morgan from making a remarkable contribution against Middlesex. While he was slapping around some mediocre Somerset bowling - he struck 13 boundaries in 29 balls - he also guided George Scott through their unbroken fifth-wicket partnership, recognising that a young player can gain so much from the experience of not just making a useful score but seeing the game through to victory, unbowed.

His England team-mate, Liam Plunkett, admitted to feeling quite low after the World Cup and even had sessions with Surrey's psychologist to discuss it. Morgan, by contrast, might be uncertain whether he still has the drive to continue his career, but at Taunton he was a picture of contentment.

"Entertainment at its best," he volunteered, without a hint of blarney, about a night in a competition he does not believe serves England cricket's needs.

For the alternative view of what the Blast brings English cricket, he could do worse than consider the words of Mohammad Hafeez, the Pakistan allrounder, who finally found time, at 38, to sample county cricket following his decision to retire from Test cricket at the end of last year.

"I was so busy in my career, because I was playing three formats over the last 10 years," he said. "It was really tough for me to get time to play for a county. Finally, this is the right time and playing for Middlesex is one of the things I feel really proud of."

Hafeez's initial impression of the English game has been favourable, notably the close-knit nature of county cricket, where team spirit arises not just from professional expectations but also more holistically, something lacking in T20 franchises leagues where Brendon McCullum once joked: "We're all mercenaries now."

"It's a little bit different because it's more about the guys who are already here playing together rather than overseas players coming in and making a franchise team," Hafeez observed.

"This is one of the good things in the Vitality Blast - you're developing a team. Everyone knows each other and there are only one or two overseas players coming in and adding value. I feel this is a very good way of moving forward."

There will certainly be a sense of belonging at Trent Bridge on Thursday, even with Hafeez having departed to the Caribbean Premier League, with the returning Mujeeb Ur Rahman replacing him. Remarkably, this will be Notts' eighth home quarter-final in 10 years, but they have not played with quite the confidence of previous seasons. Their shoddy Championship season also suggests their confidence might be more shallow than normal.

"Trent Bridge will be a tough battle," said Morgan. "It's a similar ground and boundary sizes to Taunton. If we pull out a strong performance we will come close."