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Eoin Morgan: 'In the shorter format, every batter has the ability to play aggressively'

One of the masterminds of England's recent white-ball success talks about his batting philosophy, and the effect of Bazball on Test cricket

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
"I shout at people for practising a defensive shot. It's a wasted ball."
And it seems the people shout at themselves too.
Eoin Morgan had barely begun explaining his training philosophy during Paarl Royals' preparations for the SA20 when a loud expletive came from the middle. "F***!" yelled one of the batters as they missed a slog and the ball thundered into the net.
An awkward silence interrupted what had been a free-flowing conversation. "Let's not put that into the story," Morgan joked.
In hindsight, that principle is the essence of the approach because batters don't just hope to score runs anymore, they actively look to do it.
"When you sit back and watch people bat, the very, very best always look to score first, and then, if it's a good ball and you can't score off it, you play a defensive shot," Morgan said. "It takes a lot of drilling over the years but I don't think it [the block] is at the forefront of everybody's thinking now, whereas previously it was."
He can be credited with being one of the architects of this batting revolution. There have been others, of course: Sri Lanka's approach to the first 15 overs in ODI cricket around the 1996 World Cup was remarkable at the time. Morgan's philosophy came to the fore in England after the 2015 World Cup, where they failed to make the quarter-finals. He described their exit as a "humiliation" and pinned their underperformance on their inability to score quickly enough or take advantage of changing playing conditions, which created fewer boundary riders.
"The best teams in the world were scoring upwards of 350 in every game they played and taking on extra risks with the rule of the extra man having to be up in the 30-yard circle the whole time. That was something we were falling behind in," Morgan said. "To rectify that gap, part of the change was to recruit players, who, when they made mistakes or were put under pressure, their default was to be aggressive and really put the opposition under pressure."
England opted to pick an extra batter to drive the change in approach and decided that they would back players who were fearless, such as Alex Hales and Jason Roy. "It was a mindset of trying to put the opposition under pressure at every opportunity and not necessarily engaging with the scoreboard in order to manage the level of risk that we were taking on," Morgan said.
Although it sounds like strike rate and boundary count would have been key to this kind of strategy, Morgan said it was actually how each ball was played that mattered. "It was about putting each bowler under pressure if you were given the opportunity. If you look for opportunities, they appear more often than if you weren't looking for them. So trying to create those opportunities by imposing yourself on the game was part of it."
That means just about any player who wants to play this way can. It's not an approach only for those with long levers or a strong swing. It's not about being able to use one's feet to play shots like the sweep or reverse sweep or about timing or placement. It's about the psyche of the person with the bat in the hand.
"It's not technique at all. It's all about mindset. It's about accessing a part of your brain that you might not use early on in your innings, traditionally, but you might use it later on," Morgan said. "You see it in every country around the world. On certain days, countries produce unbelievable performances and post big scores. It's just a matter of trying to group them together and do it as consistently as possible. Within the England group, at the time, we felt that even if we fell short, we would still post a bigger score than if we played defensively."
And then it's about the reassurance that if there is a blowout, it won't result in batters losing their places. "Throughout the journey, when we would fall short of posting a big score and not getting as many as we would have liked, it was important for the leadership group and the coaching staff to reinforce the message of what we were trying to achieve and trying to change," Morgan said.
The result was that England's 50-over run rate improved from 5.34 runs an over between 2009 and 2015 to 6.24 runs an over from 2016 onwards - an increase of 16.9%. That's almost one more run per over, which means that over the course of an innings, it's almost 50 more runs. In T20I cricket, the difference showed in the totals they posted - going from 160 to scores above 175.
As for England's Test team, we only need to say one word: Bazball. Though Morgan does not play red-ball cricket anymore, he credited the Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum takeover with producing "some of the best Test match series I've ever watched in my life" and fundamentally altering ideas that have been in place since Test cricket's inception in 1877.
"What England have proved this year [2022] is that you can play Test cricket in that [T20] fashion," Morgan said. "It's made for unbelievable entertainment. It's created a new level of interest and proved that you don't have to play Test cricket one way, particularly as a batter, which for, I suppose the 150 years, has always been one way."
Since Stokes and McCullum took over, England have only lost one of their ten Tests and have won three series. Most impressively, they have chased down targets quickly. Against New Zealand, they got to 277 inside 79 overs at Lord's, 299 in 50 overs in Nottingham, and 296 inside 55 overs in Leeds. At the time, their boldness was attributed to home conditions but then England went to Pakistan and scored 657 runs at a rate of 6.50 runs per over in Rawalpindi and chased 167 inside 29 overs in Karachi.
"They are proving that it's possible to play like this anywhere," Morgan said. "One of the sad things is that people continue to question it but they've gone undefeated using the same mantra and it's brilliant."
It's also created a new level of certainty for players who fit the approach but don't come off all the time, like Zak Crawley. He scored 207 runs in 12 Test innings at one point last summer but the management insisted they would still pick him for the times he does get it right. He went on to score an unbeaten 69 in England's series-clinching victory over South Africa at The Oval and 122 and 50 in his next Test. Backing a player in that way is a consequence of understanding and supporting his way of playing, which Morgan thinks, for most players, is to play proactively rather than reactively.
"I like it because for a long time, particularly with English batters, our defence has been missing. I like that we are taking the game on," Morgan said. "I feel as if Ben and Brendon sit back and watch the players play and think that they're unbelievably talented, so why don't we see more of this in the game? And let's use our strengths to impose ourselves on the game instead of going to somebody else's strengths because they said that's how you play Test cricket. It's using the talent they have to the best of everybody's ability."
And best of all, it's enjoyable and individualised, so everyone feels like they can just be themselves. "It looks like so much fun," Morgan said. "And when you look at some of them - Jonny Bairstow's innings, Joe Root's innings - the character really comes out in the innings, as opposed to it just being a normal Test 50 or 100 or 150. You get a sense of what the character in the change room is like."
All that said, is it only England who can do it? "In the shorter format, every batter has the ability to play aggressively," Morgan said. "I don't know any batters that don't play all around the ground. Every batter now has an array of shots."
At the time of writing, India's men's side had just racked up 385 runs in an ODI against New Zealand, who responded with 295, while the New Zealand Women Under-19 team hit 178 in their T20 World Cup match against Pakistan. But South Africa, the country in which Morgan is currently playing in, is experiencing a batting crisis, headlined by the Test team scoring seven consecutive sub-200 innings last year, and amplified by the selectors' refusal to pick exciting new talent like Dewald Brevis and Tristan Stubbs for their upcoming ODI series against England.
Historically, South Africa have a conservative approach to batting (Herschelle Gibbs and AB de Villiers are two outliers), but the launch of the SA20 could change that. Domestic players get to share change rooms and ideas with the likes of Morgan, Roy, Jos Buttler, Will Jacks and Adam Rossington, who scored the fastest fifty in the Hundred last summer.
The SA20 has also opened South African cricket up to the world of T20 franchise leagues, where innovation is a key aspect, and, so far, it has lived up to the hype. The first two weeks had sellout crowds, a good mix of conditions, from the slow, turning wicket at Boland Park to the pacy Centurion strip, and several local players showcasing their best.
Morgan believes the SA20 has the ingredients to transform South African cricket, especially against the backdrop of their worrying form since the 2019 World Cup, but for now, he just wants to make sure none of the Royals batters are practising the block.
"Playing in the inaugural year of a tournament is great. It's very organic, things normally flow and it's very exciting," he said. "And also, we play in stadiums where there are no grass banks. In South Africa, they still have them. When the grass bank is full, it creates that carnival atmosphere, which is nice."
Nicer perhaps when there's someone hitting the ball onto them, is what he didn't say.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent