Monday, December 12, 2011

The Missing Link?

England's recent thrashing away to India raised plenty of questions for Andy Flower and his boys heading into their New Year in the subcontinent. The media cameup with one answer: Eoin Morgan.

There's no doubt that England missed Morgan on the tour - he's had as much IPL experience as any other England batsmen, and he had some success on the subcontinent against Bangladesh last year. As MS Dhoni and India brought their totals up to and over 300, English fans were left hoping rather than believing that England's middle order could up the pace and challenge the home side. The 5 defeats ranged from the nailbiters to the collapses, but there was only one game where England ever really looked in total control. That didn't last long.

Is Morgan the answer? Why is such a relatively young player seen as so critical to the hopes of the world's top Test team, the T20 World champions? England always do badly in the subcontinent - would Morgan's presence have turned the series around?
In reality, no. The real problem isn't that Morgan was missing. It's that no one else on the English team plays in a similar fashion to him. I'm not asking for the improvised reverse pitching wedges and scoops over fine leg - the day Jonathan Trott tries that shot is the day cricket will end - but the English batsmen all showed a marked inexperience when it came to simple things.

Playing India at home is tough. Their spinners (now without Harbhajan Singh) can slow teams down as well as take wickets. Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina can hold up one end while allowing a more attacking bowler the chance to strike. Their batsmen enjoy the dry pitches, and when MS Dhoni is in the form he showed on that tour it's tough to stop the juggernaut.
But you know you're in trouble if you're only taking Kohli for 5 runs an over. When Raina keeps you on strike for an over. What Eoin Morgan does as well as anyone is rotate the strike. He finds the gaps. That doesn't mean launching drives through cover for four. It means jinking and nurdling the ball behind point and square, between the keeper and fine leg. It means keeping the bowler off balance, and keeping the field moving. It means turning dots into singles, and singles into twos.

This English team is young, particularly some of the batsmen. They are still learning their craft. Alastair Cook is still finding his feet as a captain. But to succeed on the ODI stage, they need to adopt the Morgan approach. Cook has class, and his opening partner Craig Kieswetter has raw power. Morgan has both. Kieswetter might get you off to a flier, with 40 off 20, but how will he fare in the middle overs. There are times when it seems like it's the big shot over extra cover or nothing at all. If the boundary doesn't come off the first 3 or 4 balls of the over, all the pressure's on the batsman. Morgan doesn't let that happen. There's nothing more frustrating than watching your side bowl to a man who seems able to churn out 6 and 7 runs an over while playing risk-free cricket. Eoin Morgan can do that as well as anyone in the world.

As for the last ten overs, when a team needs to push on, he's just the man to have at the crease. He seems to shift gears effortlessly, and has the strength and wrists to clear any boundary. Again, though, what marks him apart is his nous. Samit Patel might hit three sixes and then be caught at long on. Morgan will hit a six and then take the single. Samit might make 30 off 18. Morgan will make 80 off 60. He sees the target, and finds a way to get there. His maiden ODI century came against Bangladesh when England were up against it. He barely raised the bat - his focus was on the job in hand, and working over the opposition to finish it off.

Not every player can play like Eoin Morgan; he's England's best ODI batsman, and guys like him don't grow on trees. But if England want to bring their dominance to the 50-over format, they need to learn from Morgan. Of course he has the physical attributes, but above all else he has a good cricketing brain and an ability to adapt his play to the situation. There are times when you want Jonathan Trott batting, to make his 50 even if it take 780 balls (typo, but I'll leave it). There are times when you want Samit to have a whack. Eoin Morgan can do both without changing his game.

It's always a little bittersweet to watch Morgan, thinking of what might have been with Ireland. But when he makes a matchwinning contribution, there aren't many you'd pick to watch instead.

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