ICC CRICKET WORLD CUP, 2019
After England’s 64-run defeat to Australia, Morgan was riled, and, perhaps, rattled ©Getty
Eoin Morgan’s press conferences are really quite something. Rarely does a man have so much presence sat on his own on a bright purple and pink platform surrounded by nothing but sponsors drinks.
He’s calm, composed and all those other adjectives you might throw at a captain who has quietly built his reputation through tactics and exemplary player management. A key driver of the team ranked number one in the world in ODIs. But at Lord’s after England’s 64-run defeat to Australia, one which leaves them not quite needing snookers but certainly needing to clear all before them, he was riled. And, perhaps, rattled.
Jason Behrendorff, he of left arm and five for 44, said Australia’s bowlers had taken their cues on straighter lines and a more stump-orientated attack because England’s attack did neither of those things. “Of course he did,” said Morgan when those words were put to him, shaking his head slowly with a “why I oughta” smirk. “Of course he did.”
Later, a tweet from Kevin Pietersen was relayed apologetically, as all Kevin Pietersen tweets should be relayed. It suggested Morgan was fearful when facing Mitchell Starc, he also of left arm, but just the four for 43.
“The England captain stepping to square leg when Starc bowled his first delivery to him made me think England could have a little problem over the next week or so,” read the missive. “I hope not, but I’ve not seen a captain show such a weakness for a while.”
It’s punchy and, by way of a comment on a international batsman is as damning as they come. The purest example of toxic masculinity within cricket. Morgan’s eyes widened at the assertion. “Really? Excellent” came his reply, sarcasm dripping off his lips and burning a hole in the floor below.
Three questions later, England’s World Cup record against Australia are presented – no wins against the old enemy in 29 years.
“No,” responded Morgan, before turning away to face the next question head-on. “Why?” came the natural follow-up. Morgan turned back with the glare of a man interrupted while eating a slice of cheesecake.
“Because I’ve only played against them in two World Cups. 29 years doesn’t mean…I’m 32 years old.” Morgan pauses then adds a token: “Thanks mate, nice”.
With that, he moved on. Three issues tackled. Three sharp responses. But do not let Morgan’s passive aggression sway you too far. These were salient points to varying degrees.
Both Behrendorff and Starc bowled almost twice as full as their English counterparts, Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer. That, to a point, explains the contrast between England taking the first Australian wicket with 123 on the board and the scoreline of 15 for two in the sixth over of the chase of 286.
But England were unlucky. In the opening 15 overs, Australia actually played more false shots than England, with CricViz scoring it 32% to 28%. Woakes, who bowled a fine seven-over spell for just 29 runs was unlucky to have an “umpire’s call” LBW decision given in Aaron Finch’s favour when the skipper had just 18 of his eventual 100 runs. An over before, James Vince’s acrobatic effort at point nearly gave Finch’s wicket to Archer for 15. David Warner flashed and was even beaten a handful of times between bat and pad. On another day, the pair would not have made it out of the Power Play.
Did Morgan look scared? Those who read the game well – and yep, that includes Pietersen – say the biggest tell-tale sign of fear is the back leg of a batsman moving away. And second ball, a waft from Morgan outside off stump to his second ball from Starc came with all three stumps showing.
Then again, Morgan does not have the most classical technique and, against a bowler bringing the ball into him from the angle Starc does, the left-hander shapes up to hit through cover.
But two balls from Starc later, Morgan is walking off, hurried and cramped for room, top-edging to Pat Cummins down at fine leg to be dismissed on the hook shot for the third time this year. England, reeling on 26 for three in the sixth over. All but done.
And yep, Morgan is only 32, with that run of Australia-inflicted World Cup disappointments for England starting when he was transitioning from nappies. But the manner of Tuesday’s had a familiar feel. Of inevitability, even if England were able to reel Australia in from 173 for one at the start of the 33rd over to just 285 after 50. Tuesday’s defeat means it is now 11 games without a World Cup win against Australia, India and New Zealand. Any guesses as to who the hosts face in their final two fixtures with their semi-final spot hanging in the balance? History doesn’t matter until it does.
Of course, you would be a fool to take press conferences literally. This, really, is where the performance continues. Indeed, there is an early-era Jose Mourinho quality to Morgan: well aware that players hang as much on his words within the dressing room as they do when he is giving media interviews. He knows who can be publicly challenged and who needs to be publicly backed.
This performance from Morgan may grate with some in the room and on the outside looking in. And it was hard being present and not coming to the conclusion that the pressure is getting to the England captain more so than it ever has in his four-year tenure.
But it is also one done to do right by his dressing room. A dressing room whose confidence, he admits, will have taken “a little bit of a hit” after a third defeat even though he insisted no single individual has been knocked by the result.
How could it not? Since the 2017 Champions Trophy, England have lost six games while chasing. Three of those have come in this World Cup. Two to a Sri Lanka side who should have been beaten by Afghanistan and a Pakistan side they thumped across the country just a month ago.
Morgan, though, was sincere in highlighting faults, specifically failure to overcome achievable targets of 349, 233 and this 289 were through not sticking to a batting mantra of “strong intent, building partnerships and doing it our own way.”
Actually, even that response had punch to it. When asked if, perhaps, the mantra needed to change after three duds, Morgan sighted evolution rather than a straight-up rethink of England’s processes. “I don’t know if you’ve watched the last two years of the way we’ve played, but it’s evolved quite a lot.”
Of course it has, of that there can be no question. You don’t get to number one in the rankings and touted by those around you as favourites for this tournament by repeating mistakes. But all you need to know of this side will be revealed in the next week.
Should results go their way, just one win could seal passage to the semi-final. Two, of course, would guarantee it. But they could also make it through without picking up another point.
“The chances are in our hands. Everything is within our control. We just need to produce a performance worthy of winning either one or the next two games.”
Nothing punchy there. Just honesty. England are masters of their own destiny. Like their captain, they just need to summon one last bit of fight before the day draws to a close.