Totteridge is a typical English village a mile or so outside London’s northern suburbs with a good pub, some affluent residents (Arsene Wenger lived here for many years, though not in one of the very expensive houses) and, tucked away down a lane, an attractive village cricket ground.
On an evening of heavy thunderstorms in May 2015, it was my fatherly duty to drive my son to Totteridge for an away fixture in the local under-11 cricket league. He was lucky in that he was one of four boys out of the 22 that saw any action that day. He opened the batting, hit a streaky boundary past the slips under dark skies and on a damp wicket, and when the heavens opened again the players came off.
In the shelter of the pavilion, in the far corner, sat a young man who had come to watch a game of cricket — to unwind, relax, enjoy a drink, chat to a few folk. He looked a little too young to be a parent, yet he looked familiar.
Who could it be?
It took me a second or two to realise it was the new England ODI captain Eoin Morgan, recently returned from a modest season in the IPL which in turn had followed a disastrous World Cup with England’s only victories coming against Scotland and Afghanistan.
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Morgan was a perfect ambassador for English cricket that evening, signing all the boys’ bats as a neat queue formed in front of him, posing for photographs, giving up his time freely to mingle with everyone. The rain finally stopped but the ground was saturated and there was no more cricket. But Morgan — with that idiosyncratic, gentle smile that we see so often on the cricket field and which gives away so little — had made up for the foul weather.
It’s that same smile that you see whatever the scenario in a match, whether England’s bowlers are coming under pressure and he’s assessing whether to keep Adil Rashid on, whether he’s just hit a huge towering six and the team are cruising to victory, or whether he has just won (or indeed lost) a match and is carrying out his media duties.
The term “smiling assassin” is too much of a cliche to insert here; Morgan’s smile is more that of the poker player who is thinking hard yet remains determined to keep his emotions in check. He is a great lover of horse racing and one suspects he probably likes the odd bet, but is probably a shrewd operator in that regard. Two years ago, he slipped out of Jason Roy’s wedding reception in France to catch Elysium Dream, a horse he co-owns with Stuart Broad and James Anderson, winning a race at Newmarket. “I watched it in the toilets in a château and gave honestly the biggest scream you’ve ever heard,” he said soon afterwards.
It’s important to let it all out occasionally, but Morgan is careful about choosing the right moments to do so. Apart from anything else, he has developed into an exceptional captain of England’s high-flying one-day team by being so calm and methodical, engendering a positive atmosphere with just the right level of buzz in which players express themselves without fearing the impending suffocation of failure.
When the 2015 World Cup unfolded, Morgan was new to the job, hurriedly rushed into the captaincy after Alastair Cook had belatedly been dragged away from a role he never convincingly embraced.
Morgan had no time to exert his influence, inheriting a side with batsmen like Ian Bell and Gary Ballance, neither of whom scored fast enough, while Anderson and Broad stubbornly stuck to their Test match lines and lengths. Fortunately, there was a huge clean-out after that tournament and Morgan soon had the players he needed to go bravely into a bright new dawn. The selectors viewed it as a shot-to-nothing to go with brazen shot-makers and multi-skilled all-rounders in 2015, and Morgan was the man to glue it altogether.
By then, there had been plenty of evidence of the unusual gifts he possessed, personally, as a batsman even if the progression was not always a smooth one. Morgan debuted for Ireland at 16 but struggled badly in the 2007 World Cup. He rose to prominence in the Middlesex team but then turned his back on Ireland when England called on his services. He hit 67 off 34 balls against South Africa in the Champions Trophy in which he unfurled an extraordinary range of pulls, sweeps and reverse sweeps that had never been seen on the international stage before.
There was something fresh and vibrant about his approach and he soon took over from Kevin Pietersen as England’s most destructive and reliable performer in the one-day side. When the selectors tried to make him into a Test player it never quite worked out. The white-ball game was Morgan’s bag.
Like most players, Morgan has encountered lean spells along the way but the revival in England’s one-day fortunes from 2015 onwards is strongly attributable to him. The remarkable exploits of so many of the batsmen (men like Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root and Jos Buttler) mean that sometimes Morgan’s runs have been bonus material, and yet those three batsmen have learnt so much from Morgan’s self-confidence. They have developed into the players they are largely because Morgan has been there to pick them up when they’re down and keep them grounded when they’re on fire.
The relationship with Root, the Test captain, is particularly interesting. Root is the one player who is allowed to bat at a lower strike rate than optimum because he is so often the fulcrum around which the scores of 350 and above are built. It is some batting unit.
While the change in outlook from 2015 produced instant and fairly startling results from the batting unit, the bowlers have sometimes been less adept at imposing themselves on opponents. Morgan has, however, got something out of Liam Plunkett that no previous captain ever did, and has gradually brought on the injury-prone Mark Wood, allowing him to be a nasty, spiteful bowler that batsmen don’t really fancy taking on.
He also deserves huge credit for the transformation of Adil Rashid. England’s most successful leg-spinner of all time used to send down at least one bad ball every over. Now it’s more like three bad balls a match and his control of the googly is very impressive.
It is important that England sometimes win matches with strong bowling efforts rather than always blowing them away with the bat alone - and their successes in this World Cup against South Africa and West Indies are evidence that they are improving in this regard.
Morgan himself transformed a slightly sluggish batting effort against Afghanistan with a power-hitting masterpiece studded with a world-record 17 sixes. Of course it was exciting to watch in its own right, but it will not mean much if England fail to win this tournament. At some point in the next few weeks that intense pressure, that expectation will return and Morgan’s whole career could be defined by how a team formed in his image is able to respond.
If it all comes off, he won’t be able to slip into the pavilion at Totteridge quite as anonymously as before.
Oliver Brett is the author of The Alastair Cook Story, a brand new biography of the record-breaking England batsman. It is available to order now