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Analysis

Eoin Morgan takes his leave as England captain with one final act of self-awareness

Beyond his cool exterior, Morgan was warmth to the core, says Vithushan Ehantharajah

Eoin Morgan was calculating right to the very end.
On the evening of Sunday, June 19, right after scoring his second duck of England's tour of the Netherlands, he sat in his room at the WestCord Fashion hotel making notes on the upcoming T20 World Cup. How England would arrive there, what they would set out to do - "normal run-of-the-mill stuff I do", as he put it. He went to bed, slept soundly, woke up and decided to retire from international cricket.
Morgan had done a lot of research on the subject of retirement, because of course he had. Over the previous three years, he spoke to various ex-players about how they came to their decision. "The most common theme is it's a feeling," he revealed of his findings while sitting in an ECB conference room at Lord's, before giving his original conclusion: "I always thought they were full of s**t." Now he knows they weren't.
"Genuinely, I used to sit there and think 'I'm not sure about that'… But on the Monday, that's how it felt."
As ever in these matters, the feeling was as much physical as mental. That morning Morgan felt a recurrence of a groin injury. Having previously woken up with that or other injuries (particularly in his back), he had developed, at the age of 35, a system to get out of bed, then get through the day. The third and final ODI was coming up on Wednesday, and perhaps in isolation, Morgan might have been able to rouse himself to play. But there was no temptation to play, especially not simply one more for the road.
"It's completely unfair," he said of the prospect of a self-appointed swansong, "and it goes against everything I stand for, as well. I just would have felt like an imposter.
"I'd reached the end of the road. Yes, I was out of form but previously when I've been out of form I've been able to see a picture out of it. If the team were doing crap, I can see a picture out of it. I couldn't see either. And considering where the World Cup is in October, the feeling that day… it felt a million miles away."
Sticking to his principles. Ruthless for the good of the team. Doing it on his terms. Controlling one last controllable. If ever there was an Eoin Morgan step-away, this was it.
The runs had dried up, just a single half-century in 48 domestic and international white-ball innings since the start of 2021. As sharp as the mind still was, the command it once had on his elite hands and feet had waned. Nevertheless, he leaves as England's leading run-scorer in men's ODI and T20I cricket, and as their most-capped in both formats. And it speaks of his leadership and the cultural shift he elicited in the white-ball format - now fully permeating into the red-ball set-up with the help of good friend Brendon McCullum and long-time ally Ben Stokes - that his appearance and scoring records won't stand for long. Case in point: 36 percent of England's ODI centuries have come in his seven-and-a-half years as skipper.
The likeliest to usurp them in the immediate future is his mooted replacement, Jos Buttler. Other challengers will come: those already within the ODI set-up or the county game, those just starting out in the professional game, or those just realising cricket might be their thing. Such has been Morgan's influence, the next great white-ball batter might not even be born yet. But when they are, they will arrive into a world where playing selfless, entertaining cricket are English traits. It wasn't too long ago they were not.
It was not far away from where he was sitting, in another Lord's meeting room, that Morgan set out this vision. A year or so prior to the 2019 World Cup, Morgan attended an ECB marketing meeting where he was interviewed to gauge what he believes his side should represent.
"To encourage respect and unity," was what he believed they should be about, in among the performance elements of what it means to express yourself, which had been cornerstones of his team since leading the revamp after a disastrous 2015 World Cup campaign. None of which would have come good without his tactical acumen on the field.
He went on to speak with reassurance about the next steps: first as a pundit for Sky Sports in the upcoming one-day series, before assessing his domestic and franchise options ahead of completing a post-graduate diploma in strategic leadership and governance, one that will lead to potential opportunities at boardroom level. He feels it's too soon to take on a role with the England team, and is happy to mentor future captains, but does not want to force himself upon anyone or be a sole guiding voice.
In that regard, this felt like one of the better cricketing retirements. So many leave the game with little idea of what comes next, who they really are and, worst of all, the sense that they left something out there. Here, though, as Morgan smiled the smile of a man without regret or worry, you got the sense he was going to be just fine. He reiterated there would be no fear of missing out on a potential T20 World Cup win this winter, or a 50-over one next year. Beyond the sadness, when the realisation of retirement hit him that Monday morning, since then has been nothing but peace.
It was hard not to envy him. A trailblazer for his sport, a totem of elite-level brilliance, unwaveringly content - to be all that and have the utmost respect of peers and opponents alike. And to be able to step away from it when, barring comments from the sidelines, no-one would have made him. Some people might say it's another example of his cold, calculating persona, but most of all it's self-awareness: a harsh, unemotional call he has previously made on others, now unto himself.
For there is nothing cold about Eoin Morgan's story. A kid from Rush Cricket Club in County Dublin, whose international debut came at the age of 17 for Ireland against Scotland, who moved over to England to pursue something more, and ended up changing the game forever.
A few feet away from Morgan's seat among a throng of journalists were the 2010 T20 World Cup and 2019 50-over World Cup. As a key player in the first and architect of the second, his attention was drawn to them both. After taking them in for a few seconds, remarking how cool it was that they were in there with him, he noticed something. "I think that's a replica," he uttered. "I do. I don't reckon that's the real thing." What it represented, however, was something genuine.
"That just reminds me of the journey, the four years or whatever until 2018. The hardest, most challenging time but most enjoyable. And then 2019 being what it was, just culminating in the final here, was just incredible. With the best people possible, so yeah, good times."
Morgan has spent the last week since arriving back in the United Kingdom telling those "best people" of his decision. "It was pretty emotional. I thought they would all be delighted to kick me out of the door but I just feel lucky enough to have known some of the characters in the group and been through those moments in their life, both on and off the field."
The reaction from those he told was widespread dismay, from "genuinely gutted" to admissions of fighting back the tears. For them, Morgan has been more than a captain. He has been a brother in arms, one who for the longest time has been high up on the invite lists for weddings and christenings. He was dubbed "The Baby Whisperer" by some of the families within the England set-up because of how good he is with children, and it was particularly heartening to see his wife and daughter by his side for his announcement.
Of course, Morgan has been there for many of them during the tougher times, too. And there is no doubt the generation of England players that won or contributed along the way to the 2019 World Cup success will still be as close in 20 years' time, in part because of the environment Morgan has created.
"As much as that World Cup means everything, we won't necessarily talk about the moment the whole time," said Morgan. "It might be the day somebody made their debut, the day somebody had a baby and missed a match. Just different experiences. Those are the moments you share and cherish."
Morgan will go down in the books as a captain who changed English cricket for the better, one whose impact will resonate for generations. But he was fundamentally a man who thought cricket was a game to be enjoyed by all and questioned why things needed to be done a certain way. And in doing so, he enriched the lives of those he led and, in turn, those who watched. No matter how cold, calculating and inscrutable he might have seemed right to the end, there was nothing but warmth at his core.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo