The England captain on the evolution of his team’s philosophy, and why there is something more fundamental at play than simply winning and losing.
There is a ruthless precision to Eoin Morgan. It shows itself in the details. In the methodical pursuit of run chases. In the considered way he weighs the merits of any query. And it’s there in his flinty features, directing his fielders no matter the fire coming from opposition batsmen.
It’s illustrated most eloquently in the team built in the image he has so clearly cultivated, that which rose from the debris of their last World Cup tilt to become ODI cricket’s most feared and in-form side.
England's record in their last 33 completed ODIs in England:— Cricket World Cup (@cricketworldcup) May 25, 2019
“It’s taken us a while to identify our identity,” he tells the ICC. “That takes time as a group. You need to believe in the way you’re playing and in what you’re doing.
“A few years ago, that began to evolve into a really aggressive outlook and we were going to see how high our ceiling was. As we continued, we began to play smarter cricket too. If you were to ask somebody what do they expect when they see an England white-ball team, I think they’d see excitement and freedom.”
The process has been a thrilling ride for players, supporters and skipper alike as England, previously hamstrung by conservatism, have pushed the envelope. In the four years since Morgan’s men broke the 400-run barrier for the first time in England’s history during their opening 50-over contest following their group-stage exit at the 2015 edition, their ODI form has been peerless.
They haven’t lost a multi-game series for two-and-a-half years, have twice smashed the world record for an innings score and, entering this English summer, their average run-rate since that 2015 tournament was running at 5.97, compared to South Africa's next-best mark of 5.48.
Through it all, there has been a gradual build-up of anticipation: an ICC World Cup on home soil and with it, the opportunity, 44 years after the tournament first launched on these shores, for England to finally win it.
Yet Morgan sees it differently. Winning isn’t everything. “Part of our culture and values is that I like to think sport nowadays isn’t revolved around performance,” he adds. “People can respect, relate to and admire teams and cultures if they do it in the right way. If we go out of this tournament – but for the right reasons, with the players having given everything – people will have a huge amount of respect for that.”
You’re always living out of your suitcase. It’s never the same place and the hotel rooms and cities are different, but the thing that you start your journey with is your own cap.
Culture is an operative word for Morgan, one symbolised in his England team by each player’s cap, much like the Baggy Green has so often served as a touchstone for Australia’s Test squad. Their approach has been to take this one step further, crafting an idea that the three lions which adorn those caps each represent one of the three words that speak to the team’s core values: courage, respect and unity.
He explains: “In international cricket, you’re always living out of your suitcase. It’s never the same place and the hotel rooms and cities are different, but the thing that you start your journey with is your own cap.
“It’s with you for as many games as you’re around and it ties everybody together. That is the crown, and those three words are symbolised with the three lions.”
Morgan’s point is that this exceptional group he has built, and the atmosphere nurtured around it, will not be defined by one innings, match or tournament. It’s a wise approach, as evidenced by the bone-crunching reminder of sport’s tenuous nature Morgan endured on the eve of England’s first warm-up game against Australia. During a fielding drill, the skipper incurred a ‘flake fracture’ of his left index finger and spent 20 agonising minutes contemplating his World Cup mortality.
“I’ve had a load of broken fingers,” he reveals. “With a dislocation, when it’s put back in, you know after about 20 minutes. The pain goes away. If the pain doesn’t die down, you know it’s more serious. That was a nervous 20 minutes. If something happens, something happens. You can’t account for it. You train and prepare as hard as you can, but you can’t prepare for an injury.”
It was a quick illustration of the folly of making judgments based on linear goals. Four years of planning and execution can so easily be thrown off kilter by the bounce of a ball, the snap of a finger. Thankfully, Morgan is expected to be fit to lead England into the tournament-proper on Thursday against South Africa at The Oval.
England’s journey to this point, at least in the mind of their leader, isn’t just about the outcome of a solitary World Cup. It goes beyond the kind of singular focus that Morgan so exemplifies when in the heat of battle. “For once in your life,” he concludes. “You’re not being judged purely on getting a hundred or five-for.
“You can tap back into the grassroots. Parents or coaches can say, ‘This is what this team stands for. You should follow them’. You have to understand your place – it’s easy to close yourself off in a bubble, and I think that’s a little naïve. There are two sides to it: winning is one, and the other is growing the game and inspiring a new generation.”