One of Napoleon’s favourite generals, the glamorous, reckless Joachim Murat, was famous for riding into battle ahead of his cavalry regiment carrying nothing but a small whip. For all the bloodshed around him Murat maintained he never personally injured a single enemy soldier, although presumably that whip could be a bit annoying. In an unfortunate twist he ended up being sentenced to death for treason, his final request a hot bath filled with eau de cologne and a firing squad made up of his own captured men.
It is always hard to resist the urge to pack sport and war into the same sentence, to draw overwrought comparisons between acts of military generalship and standing around wearing three caps deciding whose turn it is to bowl. Still, though, watching Eoin Morgan lead Kolkata Knight Riders to the final of the Indian Premier League while making scores of 4, 0, 5, 13, 2, 2, 0, 8 and 7, it was hard not to feel a bit of that Murat energy. Here he comes, the non-combatant general, riding into battle with only a whip in his hand. And preparing now to lead England into their T20 World Cup campaign against West Indies on Saturday day.
This is not a criticism. Morgan is 35 years old. He retains his lustre, his authority as a brilliant organiser. He would surely have retired from international cricket already but for the Covid-induced delay to this World Cup. But the uncomfortable truth is he has 142 runs in his past 12 T20 internationals, hasn’t made a score against a top-class attack in more than a year, and has that tendency whenever the bowling gets quick and bouncy to whirl away like an arthritic head gardener thrashing at a cloud of midges with a yard broom.
Such are his skill and his brains it isn’t hard to imagine Morgan finding a way to make this work, to gouge some runs out of what he has left. But whatever England’s destiny over the next three weeks of dew-riddled knock-out cricket, this is the thing that’s really happening right now. We are in the process of becoming post-Morgan. The single most transformative presence in England cricket’s short-form history – still, somehow, an oddly remote, sphinx-like figure – is about to shuffle off. How is it going to feel?
Morgan does seem undervalued right now. Public opinion has turned a little. He has already spoken this week of his willingness to drop himself mid-tournament should his form become a problem, to mutters of approval in the court of social media. It is a part of Morgan’s presence that he doesn’t give you much, has never asked to be loved, never reached out in that way. There is no Morgan tribe, no Morgan fandom in the modern sporting celebrity style. The closest he has ever come to courting popularity in England was some brief and to-the-point comments on the multicultural makeup of his team at a home World Cup.
Some will see him now as something of a company man, all too happy to embrace the cancellation of the Pakistan tour, parroting the England and Wales Cricket Board line on the Hundred. Certainly Morgan has only ever followed his own interests – from ditching red-ball cricket, to ending Alex Hales’s international career for rather sanctimonious “team culture” reasons. He has been vindicated at every turn in this, has delivered wonderful shared moments. For that he will always be venerated as a gold standard of hard-headed leadership. But it feels like a rather cold success these days. Is there anything more?
There are two things worth saying about this. The first is about Morgan’s own batting, which has become a little overlooked as an influence. It is easy to forget that he was in his own time a revolutionary. England had only played 20 completed T20 internationals when Morgan, in his second game, swatted and flipped and clubbed his way to a gun-flexing 85 off 45 balls against South Africa in Johannesburg. This was something entirely new. And 10 games later England were unexpected T20 world champions. Some of the older players have talked about that victory as something adrenal and flukish. Eleven years into the age of Eoin, does it still look like that?
Morgan was a defibrillation in that team. But he was also too often an anomaly in Act One of his England career. Two years later he was levering Brett Lee into the Lord’s seats en route to 89 off 63 balls, but doing it in an England team that still had Cook-Bell-Trott as the top three. It took a nervous collapse around the 2015 World Cup to clear the decks, for England’s white-ball cricket to give itself over to this obvious note of illumination. With this in mind there is something a little off about the idea of Morgan as simply a strategist, an enabler-cum-head-prefect. The culture shift that followed was an extension of his presence, the strength of the Morgan-Trevor Bayliss personality undoing decades of fear and tortured thinking.
It is easy to overlook the scale of this. Scroll back and Morgan has been captain for 20% of all England’s ODI victories ever. The good moments are almost exclusively Morgan moments. Quite how that plays out now will be fascinating to watch. Captaincy in T20 cricket is a vital thing in itself, albeit with its own caveats. As the T20 strategist Jarrod Kimber has pointed out Morgan was a good captain because he trusted Ben Stokes in 2019. He was a bad captain because he trusted Ben Stokes in 2016. Go figure.
English cricket has a history of indulging its basking stars. Morgan is a great deal more than this. But that perfumed bathtub is already bubbling away. If the current desert thrash really is to be his farewell, he deserves our indulgence, our affection; and above all the chance to go out on his shield wherever it might lead.