As England stumbled against Sri Lanka and were outgunned by Australia, and their tournament lives depended on beating one or both of India and New Zealand, the knives were out and being sharpened. A tournament on home soil of the top ranked team was supposed to be the summer of celebration of the redefining of the ODI game and a relentless march towards coronation. Instead, England were without the services of their 'Sehwagian' opener Jason Roy, his partner Jonny Bairstow was angry about the imagined lack of home support and captain Eoin Morgan was tetchy about comments from a former England captain questioning his ability to handle the short ball.
In retrospect, all of this must be a lot more easy to handle compared to how England must have felt when they were routed by Tim Southee and New Zealand, and later knocked out of the 2015 World Cup by Bangladesh. England sent a squad to Australia and New Zealand so out of touch with the modern ODI game that Sunil Gavaskar and his 36 not out must have looked a good return for an opener.
Morgan had possessed a game suited to the modern requirements of a batsman in limited overs but the English team chosen to be at his disposal was out of step with the tune of the times. There was Ian Bell, as gorgeous as any cover driver in cricket’s long history and Gary Ballance, stodgy in the Tavare mould, and as were the great servants of England in the Test game, James Anderson and Stuart Broad; all of them ideal in their own ways but unsuited to the demands of the ODI game in the second decade of the 21st century.
England needed to be in sync with the rhythms of a game that demanded batsmen to be fearless and calculative, relentless and strategic, classicists and unorthodox, all at the same time. Imitation is the best form of flattery, and England chose to flatter the aggressive approach of New Zealand, only that they would take it further in its execution than (Brendon) McCullum and band ever could.
Peter Moores was let go and Trevor Bayliss was hired as the head coach; Andrew Strauss was willing to “pull the trigger” in England investing in a new breed of players who wouldn’t play ODIs in an outdated style. Morgan and Strauss, singing from the same book, recognised that “[England] needed to play aggressive cricket”, and the need to “select guys for a prolonged period of time and back them” to play in the fashion they wanted them to play. In essence, in playing an aggressive brand of cricket, there will be days when the method will not pay off, and England might slide to an embarrassing defeat but there was method behind that madness, and therefore, the players needed to be backed.
Morgan was relatively a young captain, leading England only 19 times, including the disastrous 2015 World Cup campaign, and tasted victory in less than half the games. While England included the likes of Jason Roy, Alex Hales and Bairstow, and imbued them with the magic potion that made them unafraid of failure, Morgan was learning on the job to handle the younger players, their youthful indiscretions, their need for freedom to express themselves on and off the field; he needed to be an older brother who was affectionate while also not shying away from drawing clear lines of acceptable conduct. Given the spotlight surrounding the Ben Stokes - Alex Hales incident at Bristol, England even “practised” the manners and ways in which the players in the team were to conduct themselves in their off time.
England went about setting batting records in the ODI game at a pace not seen previously; they added depth to their batting by including bowlers who could not just bat a bit but could actually hit. Consequently, there were not many matches that England could be counted as out till the last ball or the last wicket; they showed the ability to not just crush their oppositions but also proved to be tenacious notching up wins from unprecedented positions. Due to all this, they won 54 of the 81 ODI matches, led by Morgan in the period between World Cups of 2015 and 2019.
The ferocity with which England dispatched Pakistan in a high scoring slugfest series just prior to the 2019 World Cup sent warning signals to all the other teams in the competition that they will have to match the hitting muscle if they ever wanted to stand a chance of competing with this new England. Funnily enough, Morgan who was ahead of his time within the England set in terms of limited overs batting, did not have much heavy lifting to do; the young guns he had handpicked were delivering for him.
While England’s batting might was pushing their competition out of their way in two-thirds of their games, the bowling did not prove equal to the task. However, England were given a shot in the arm when Jofra Archer became “England eligible” and was picked in the squad, and made a wise decision to select Mark Wood’s pace in the fifteen as well.
Now, England had almost all their bases covered, and it showed when they pulverised South Africa in the opening match of the 2019 World Cup. It took them a few games to convince themselves that they were better served to include the pace of Liam Plunkett in place of the spin of Moeen Ali. As mentioned earlier, Roy’s injury - and the non-inclusion of Hales in the squad - hurt England against Sri Lanka and Australia.
The India match could have derailed everything England had spent the last four years building, but England came out of the gates firing on all cylinders powered by the now-fit Roy, and Bairstow who sparred at media shadows and felt he had a point to prove. After a comfortable win over the Indians, England crushed New Zealand to confirm their passage to semi final to face their old enemies Australia who had humiliated them earlier in the tournament at Lord’s.
A message from the skipper @Eoin16!
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) July 11, 2019
The much-anticipated encounter back in the familiar haunts of Birmingham turned into a laughter. Morgan did not have to do much with the bat - even though he hit the winning runs - but his tactical acumen and recognition of keeping the foot on Australia’s throat when they were down were instrumental in the victory. After the initial onslaught on Australia’s top order, Morgan kept faith first with Adil Rashid to combat Alex Carey and later persisted with Archer in his second spell to prise out the wicket of the maverick-genius Glenn Maxwell.
As they stand on the threshold of history, Morgan will be able to look back on a ride that he’s been on - first as a player then as a captain - in an English team that went from the tortoise to become the supercharged hare. He has one more race to run on Sunday and at the successful completion of it, he will enter the annals of great England captains even though he was in charge exclusively of the white ball side.