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No country for folk heroes

Clueless: Eoin Morgan ran out of answers Getty Images

It has to be conceded that the ambitions of the new ECB hierarchy to create England cricketing folk heroes is not going awfully well. The only thing imprinting itself on England's consciousness during this World Cup is a growing sense of disillusionment. For the many who slept through it, Sri Lanka's run chase in Wellington really was a breeze.

That ambition is worth examination, however, because folk heroes, whether real or fictional, achieve great things because of a courageous sense of individuality. They enhance our lives, and are loved for it, but they rarely blindly conform. It is a message, at their lowest point, that England's cricketers - and Eoin Morgan in particular - would do well to heed.

When Morgan first burst into England's one-day side, he briefly had a hint of the folk hero about him. When he replaced Alastair Cook as England's one-day captain ahead of the World Cup, that reputation still lingered: it was imagined that he might bring a spirit of adventure to the role.

Yet against Sri Lanka, he made 27 from 47 balls in the misguided belief that 300 was a route to victory, and then skippered in the field just as conservatively, hoping beyond hope as he supervised a flat England bowling display that something might turn up. Captaincy seems to be resting heavily on him, just as it did on Cook. In the case of Morgan, the more expansive one-day player, it is all the more galling.

Tactically, curious things are happening. Morgan the finisher feels obliged to bat ahead of James Taylor, who is a fine manipulator, a reliable judge of the pace of an innings, but not in Morgan's league when it comes to the potential to create havoc in the closing overs. Morgan got out just before the Powerplay; Taylor struggled through it. It did not make tactical sense.

Such inhibitions must arise to some extent from the culture around the team. They are not helped by the pressures from the media. And they are made worse still by the increasingly disparaging culture of the nation. Add them together and English cricket is no place for folk heroes.

It must be harder for Morgan to cut a dash when the build-up to the Sri Lanka match was marked by a media storm over why he does not sing the national anthem before matches.

Before the days of social media, it would have just been seen as a quirky angle: no great harm done. But now the opinions and prejudices rain down in response - with a disturbing number of respondents presenting Morgan in sour-faced fashion as a charlatan, an Irishman hoodwinking England into thinking he cared when actually he was only in it for the money. Not one of us. Whatever "us" is.

The mixture of nostalgia and grievance that clings heavily around English life, the vision of a distant, simpler England, a vision given greater potency by an approaching election, is a poisonous cocktail. The polls suggest 75% of Britons want to limit immigration but a character assassination of Morgan because he is a Dubliner who chooses not to sing is a bit rich.

"England's players have all the dedication required - it is liberation they need. The balance between a recognition of social obligations and their duty to embark upon a process of self-discovery is the real route to the free spirit demanded"

So Morgan does not sing the national anthem. Big deal. Half the nation would sing it with fervour, the other half dislikes the song because of what they perceive it to represent. It is not as if he picks his nose throughout it, or cracks jokes with the guy next to him, or gazes around inanely. He has a right to focus in any way he wishes. And if it ever turns out he has strong personal reasons not to sing the anthem, he is entitled to them. It is the World Cup, not Last Night of the Proms.

And then, after demanding such conventions, we complain when England don't play with a free spirit.

Barely a week goes past without England's cricketers being urged to play with freedom. It is an understandable cry, but it is a cry often beset with double standards. To play sport with a free spirit, it is an advantage to live with a free spirit. One fuels the other. And too often cricket, and those who profess to love it, prefers to imprison its players in conformity.

What if a captain of a Championship-winning side pronounced that he did not mean to be disrespectful but he would prefer not to attend the traditional end-of-season ceremony at Buckingham Palace because he favoured the abolition of the monarchy?

Would such a display of free spirit be accepted then?

What if an England cricketer responded to a losing Ashes tour by making a professional decision that his preparations were best served by a few late-night drinks? Or opted not to attend a church funeral of an important cricketing figure because he was an avowed humanist with rigid principles?

Would the free spirit everybody yearns for on the field be praised so highly?

It is English cricket, after all, where Ted Dexter announced during a disastrous Test tour of India in 1993 that he intended to conduct an investigation into "the whole issue of facial hair". That even Dexter, a wonderful individualist as a player, connected cricketing performance with shaving standards was the supreme imposition of protocol above free-thinking.

Most England cricketers are hot-housed from an early age, and are so identified by high levels of personal ambition. What they need above all is not a lecture in dedication, which for the most part they have in abundance, but to discover and maximise their own individuality.

Discipline and skill win many a Test. Individual courage, combined with skill, win many a one-day international.

There is endless talk in England about the maths and science of one-day cricket, not so much talk about the art. Peter Moores is not alone in being a cricket coach driven by statistics. Statistics have their place - it would be foolish not to consider them - but they should never suppress the improvisation and game sense within a great performer. Maths and science having come up short so far, the only recourse is art.

Rudolf Nureyev was such a folk hero that when he danced in Paris for the first time he was regularly feted with women's underwear flung onto the stage. In Dancer, the fictional autobiography of Nureyev, Morgan's fellow Dubliner Colum McCann tells how the young Rudi debates the meaning of a myth concerning the Hindu god Shiva, who had danced within a circle of fire. The World Cup fire is burning all around England. They no longer need to measure it. They need to dance in it.

England's players have all the dedication required; it is liberation they need. The balance between a recognition of social obligations - represented by their sensitivity towards team plans and needs - and their duty as human beings to embark upon a process of self-discovery is the only remaining route to the free spirit so routinely demanded. Morgan, in the conflicting role of captain with responsibilities and a high-risk batsman, needs to make that adjustment more than most.

Some of England's greatest pop stars parade their individuality at the slightest excuse. Our actors explore their innermost selves in every great performance. But sport is cut from straighter cloth and folk heroes in English cricket come along rarely: Botham, Flintoff, Pietersen, none of whom delighted the authorities.

Too often an England cricketer settles for conventionality. It would be sad if that was the outcome of Morgan's captaincy.

Alternatively, with a place in the quarter-finals in the balance, if Shiva is not to his taste, Morgan could summon an Irish legend for inspiration. Perhaps the story of Finn MacCool, who, after a fortunate run-in with a mystical salmon, merely had to suck his thumb to have the secrets of the world revealed to him.

In England's parlous position, it would be a good trick to be going on with, although perhaps best not attempted during the next rendition of "God Save the Queen".