@jonathanliew 15 minute read
The end came on a dry and breezy Monday morning. Eoin Morgan sat up in bed, felt the twinges of battle in his back, joints and groin, an overwhelming tiredness, and ennui in his soul – and knew what it all meant. He had spoken to countless colleagues and friends about this moment. “There’s a time and place when it hits you,” he said later. For England’s greatest white-ball captain, that was June 20 at the Fashion Hotel in Amsterdam.
The ability to script one’s own departure was a luxury not enjoyed by all his predecessors. Adam Hollioake was sacked shortly before the 1999 World Cup. Stuart Broad’s removal as Twenty20 captain was barely announced: England just stopped picking him. Then there was Alastair Cook, whose dismissal in late 2014, on the brink of another World Cup, left him distraught.
This was the moment at which national selector James Whitaker picked up the phone to appoint Cook’s replacement. There was no answer. Whitaker called again, and again, and again. By the time Morgan finally looked at his phone, he discovered around 20 missed calls. It was perhaps the last time in his England career he would be blindsided.
Indeed to describe him as England’s greatest white-ball captain is to damn him with scandalously faint praise – like describing the Buddha as a great Buddhist. Morgan didn’t just take the job: he reinvented it, reimagined it, remoulded it into something new, gave it a shape and a purpose all its own. He was not England’s first specialist limited-overs leader, but he was the first to make it his vocation, to conceive of it not as a gateway or an accompaniment to more important things, but as a destination and a privilege in its own right.
His seven and a half years and 198 matches constitute the longest unbroken reign in England men’s cricket. Longevity is not the most celebrated of Morgan’s traits, but perhaps it should be. In an era of unprecedented flux, both at home and abroad – through a back-breaking schedule, cultural and tactical shifts, several coaches and a pandemic – he endured. Had he done no more than that, his place in history would already be secure.
He did far more. He transformed a losing team into a winning dynasty. Excluding incomplete matches, he won 65 percent of his one-day internationals as captain, the sixth-highest of anyone to take charge in more than 50, and a better rate than Richards, Waugh, Dhoni or McCullum. And yet he is probably best known for a tie: the 2019 World Cup final against New Zealand, when he contributed little with the bat and nothing with the ball, but still felt like the game’s dominant presence, its zen centre, a hub of calm in the maelstrom of
one of the most dramatic matches ever played.
The sheer caprice of that final – the deflection off Ben Stokes’s bat, the uproarious super over – feels at odds with Morgan’s wider legacy as a master strategist and meticulous planner. By the same token, you sense he was sufficiently steeped in the randomness of short-form cricket to understand that things could easily have turned out the other way – and that, had they done so, his efforts would have been as honest, his sweat as worthwhile, his decisions as correct. That equanimity, the tolerance of error and misfortune, the knowledge that you could do your best and still lose, was one of his greatest assets. It was a quality that allowed him to weather the frequent batting slumps that would have destroyed a less resilient player. In fact, one of the world’s most renowned short-form batters never fulfilled his potential in domestic T20: he did not score a century and, in 16 wandering years with 11 teams, won just three titles out of 32.
But his greatness could not be entirely measured in matches or time or win percentages – or trophies. Rather, it was a tone and a tingle, a mood and a moment, the sense that wondrous things were about to happen, the warmth and the strength of a team that grew together, fought together, encapsulated the best of these islands. Which is why, when Morgan was pressed for his favourite memory as captain, he did not choose the World Cup final, or a specific game or performance. Instead he chose a feeling: those twitches of hope and possibility in the early summer of 2015, when a new captain and his new players began to nudge thrillingly at the boundaries of their potential.
That was the start of the journey and, as they say in the movies, perhaps the real World Cup was the friends made along the way. Morgan’s England would be founded on comradeship, honesty and trust. Selection was rational and consistent. Players were picked not just on ability but on character. Failure was acceptable; caution or arrogance were not. Statistics and data were woven in seamlessly – always available, never prescriptive. A formula emerged: left-arm seam at the top, spin in the middle, yorkers at the end, aggressive fielding and batting throughout. And yet the emphasis was on variety: 360-degree strokeplay, clever changes of pace and flight, a subtly different challenge presented by every bowler.
For Morgan, this heterodoxy had long been ingrained. From the moment he hauled his kit across the Irish Sea, he was the outsider who entered the system but was never truly of it. As a batter, he was unapologetically innovative, deploying a repertoire of firm-handed paddles and swipes that had hardly been seen in English cricket. That he played only 16 Tests remains a stunning misfortune: Morgan came of age alongside one of the most abundant generations in English batting history. These days, he would have been given multiple chances to sort out his technical issues.
But red ball’s loss was white ball’s gain. In any case, Morgan did not seem to mourn the demise of his Test career too keenly, nor accept the consensus that this was the only legacy which mattered. He was and remains his own man, unafraid of the court of public opinion. This occasionally made him a target. Not singing the national anthem was an early example; pulling out of a tour of Bangladesh, when most of his colleagues did not, was another; so was dropping Alex Hales on the eve of the 2019 World Cup for taking recreational drugs, then refusing to recall him. Relinquishing the captaincy during a series in the Netherlands felt like one final act of self-expression, a decision over which he was determined to maintain “a true sense of ownership”.
Was Morgan too powerful? Did the ultimate system disruptor in the end become the system? In his later years, particularly after 2019, there was a weirdly impregnable aura around him, a deference observed not just by his players but often by his coaches and superiors. Words were rendered into wisdom simply by emerging from his mouth. His unabashed support for The Hundred – often expressed by way of backhanded slurs against the county game – may have been sincerely held, but was eerily similar to what a paid ECB mouthpiece might say. Meanwhile, his reputation as a champion of diversity and racial justice was boosted by a press-conference comment after the World Cup final – “Allah was with us” – that went viral.
Then again, if anyone was going to turn English cricket into a fiefdom, you would rather it be him. For a man of fierce competitive spirit, who lived in the cauldron of top-level cricket for over a decade, he left with no enemies, no real feuds, no unfinished business – with the possible exception of the Hales situation – and nobody prepared to say a bad word about him. This was Morgan’s real talent: the ability to draw people closer, even as he remained magnificently elusive, to give orders in a way that felt empowering, to create intimacy and friendship in a ruthless business.
England have been blessed with good captains over the years: from Brearley to Hussain, from Jardine to Vaughan, from Heyhoe Flint to Knight. But all, in their own way, were custodians – leaders whose purpose was to inherit, innovate, bequeath. Morgan inherited no tradition or lineage. He bequeathed to Jos Buttler a strategy and a blueprint, but also a team built fiercely in his own image, playing a game slowly declining in relevance.
Will international T20 still be around in eight years? Will 50-over cricket survive beyond the showpiece tournaments? In short, will it ever be possible for an England captain to build a team and a culture from the ground in the way Morgan did? Great leaders come and go. Great moments are unique. There will be others. But somehow, there will never be another.
Jonathan Liew is a sportswriter for The Guardian.