Ben Gardner admires an incomparable performance in the field by England captain Eoin Morgan, who marshalled a successful defence from a seemingly impossible position against Australia in the second ODI.
You already know, of course, how good a captain Eoin Morgan is. You remember how he took England from embarrassment in Australia to ecstasy at Lord’s, how his tenure has witnessed the full gamut of cricketing emotion. You understand how he’s been the pivotal figure in sculpting a cricket team from a shambles into arguably the finest across formats England has ever fielded, all in the space of one five-year parliamentary fixed term. You recall how he was handed a raw but unscarred team in the first ODI series that followed that 2015 humiliation, told them to shoot the lights out, and rode the wave right to the summit.
But, again, you know all that. You’ve seen for yourself how this England team, under Morgan’s watch, has redefined what’s possible in the 50-over format, how villains have become heroes and a generation has been re-engaged. What you won’t have seen quite so often is what he managed against Australia, a tactical masterclass in defence of a small total that nevertheless loomed larger and larger throughout the chase as Morgan worked his magic.
That you haven’t is to Morgan’s credit rather than his detriment. England’s style has been to bat teams out of the game first up, or chase down whatever they get set. But, as England embark on their quest to create a dynasty with a title defence in India, this sort of scenario will present itself more frequently, with less true pitches prepared to ensure all bases are covered.
To put it bluntly, Morgan was magnificent. Turning the screw, holding his nerve, and deservedly emerging victorious. The only thing he didn’t look in full control of was the second hat, perched precariously on his head.
To start things off, there was Jofra Archer’s opening spell, and just as Adil Rashid looks a different bowler when its Morgan at the helm, so too does the 25-year-old speedster. Bowling surely exactly as he should in Test cricket, Archer nicked off David Warner with a 91mph seaming snorter, before surprising Marcus Stoinis with a lightning short ball, fended behind as well. As Archer explained after picking up the Player of the Match award, “he gives me the freedom to bowl whatever I want”.
Then, he waited. Archer can’t bowl them all, and even as Marnus Labuschagne and Aaron Finch constructed a would-be match-winning partnership, he and Chris Woakes were held back. Only when Australia were over halfway to the target were they brought back. Having finally gone to his quicks, Morgan knew it was then or not at all, and even as five wicketless overs passed, he persisted. Heading into the last 20, Australia were 143-2, needing 89 to win.
It was Woakes who broke through, but, fittingly, it was Morgan’s review that actually claimed the wicket, Labuschagne’s inside-edge beaten and his pad struck in front, rather than just outside. England had the breakthrough and Morgan’s new ball pair had just four overs left between them. The temptation must have been there to save them for the death, bring on Rashid and the Currans and sit tight a while longer. Instead, Morgan, unsatisfied, went for the jugular, choosing to bowl Woakes and Archer out; Mitchell Marsh, Finch, and Glenn Maxwell were all bowled in their next four overs. Morgan had gone all in and against all odds, the game had been cracked back open.
On paper, Australia should have still been favourites. Australia were six down, the rate was at less than a run a ball, and Woakes and Archer were done. Adil Rashid, for once this summer, looked below his best at times struggling to grip the ball as he desired, and the Currans, for all their qualities, aren’t Woakes and Archer quite yet. But with Morgan at the helm, England never felt anything less than in charge. 14 of the next 24 were dot balls. The rate went above one a ball.
Then there were the sums to think about. With Ben Stokes out, all five would need to bowl 10, and as Tom Curran and Rashid bowled in tandem, the realisation dawned that Sam Curran would need to bowl unchanged from one end, or Joe Root would need to turn his arm over. England’s fans needn’t have worried; Morgan, on the face of it, never did. Sam Curran bowled Pat Cummins and nicked off Mitchell Starc, and Australia were eight down.
Still Australia weren’t quite out of it as Alex Carey threatened a resurrection of his own. The Woakes-Archer gamble meant Morgan was reduced to a motivator and field placer, and it came down to 27 needed off 12, with Rashid, wicketless and having conceded 66 off nine at that point, to bowl. A lesser bowler under a lesser captain might have been cowed. Instead a googly foxed Carey, Buttler completed the stumping, and the game was done.
England had pulled off a miracle, and Morgan had made it seem inevitable all along.