Changing the rules of engagement
Eoin Morgan has given a few masterclasses this summer. There was his century against South Africa at Headingley, his 87 against Australia at Edgbaston and his 75 against Bangladesh at The Oval. Then there was the hour he spent at Aldersley leisure centre in Wolverhampton. You may have missed that one. It was during the finals of Chance to Shine’s street cricket competition, when the kids were taking a break from whacking tape balls around the indoor gym. One asked Morgan which was his favourite shot, another, a young Pakistan fan, what it felt like to be cleaned up by Hasan Ali and a third wanted to know how much Morgan enjoyed playing for his favourite team. Which wasn’t England, or Middlesex, but the Kings XI Punjab. It was another little reminder of the ways in which the game is changing.
Chance to Shine cooked up street cricket to give city kids an easy way to get into the game. It’s a six-a-side thrash, played with a tape ball and a plastic bat. Morgan gets it. “I grew up on a council estate,” he says. “So I can relate to not having facilities.” All he had was a barrel of kit his father kept by the front door. He learned to play on a concrete strip by the side of his house in Rush in North County Dublin. He used to make his own tape balls. “But normally I’d be bowling against my elder brothers and they’d just whack it out of the garden. Then we’d have to get another ball with no tape on it.”
Only, Morgan used to dream of playing Test cricket. Most of these kids are hooked on T20. Morgan wanted to be Brian Lara or Graham Thorpe because when he was young England always seemed to be playing West Indies. “Which is mad because Thorpe’s our batting coach now.” Not long ago, Thorpe was giving him a few pointers on his pull shot. “I was playing it with one leg off the ground, which takes all the power out of your shot. He said that to me and I was like: ‘Hold on, I’m sure I had a picture of you on my bedroom wall playing a pull with one leg off the ground and a floppy hat on.’”
When Morgan was 13, he and his dad met the Ireland coach Adrian Birrell. “He had ideas about Ireland moving forward and my dad turned to him and said: ‘Well, he wants to play Test cricket.’ Adrian turned to him and said: ‘Well, he’s 13 years old, how do you know you know you want to play Test cricket?’ But I just did. I always thought my future was here.” Odd how life works out. Morgan came to England because he wanted to play Tests but he’s ended up specialising in limited-overs cricket. And now Ireland have Test status. But he’s adamant he will never go back.
Morgan is 30, a year older than Dawid Malan, but he’s reconciled himself to the idea that he won’t play another Test. “I came to terms with that when I took the captaincy,” he says. “Because in order to prove myself to play Test cricket I would need to play more county cricket, which would have meant giving up my one-day position. And I’m not willing to do that at the moment. I think what we have with the one-day side is quite special, hopefully we’re putting a side in the position to compete in 2019. So I’m very happy with the path my career has taken.”
At the same time, he tells the kids that the three team-mates he admires most are Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali because they play all three formats. “I suppose ideally I’d like to play all forms but there are not many people that do that any more. There’s a bigger division now than there ever has been between Tests and white-ball cricket,” he says. “It’s becoming a real challenge that. With T20, there’s such a shift, to go straight from Tests to T20 is such a jump.” So what does Morgan, a pioneer of modern cricket, make of the shibboleth that Test cricket is the pinnacle of the game?
“It’s hard for me to say,” he admits. “I’ve changed my view in the last year or so. Before, we said Test cricket is the best form of the game. But everybody is gearing towards Twenty20 cricket.” Morgan has been around. He knows better than most what some of the players in the IPL and the Big Bash think about Test cricket. “How do you get people to engage with, say, Test matches between South Africa and the West Indies or Pakistan v New Zealand? How do you make those series relevant? I don’t have the answer. I just know that something needs to be done. There has to be a shift or the divide will become bigger and one form will take over. And I don’t see Tests taking over.”
Morgan is surprised that the swing towards T20 has not started already in England. He says the players he is with at Middlesex have not made the switch yet. “But we’re at a county which does prioritise red-ball cricket. And our young guys coming through, Stevie Eskinazi, Nick Gubbins, George Scott, their priority is still to play Test cricket. Which is interesting because I thought the shift would have been made by now.” But Morgan has no doubt it is coming. “The impact of T20 cricket, it’s influence around the world, that’s already happened. We’re a way behind it in England. But when it comes it shouldn’t come as a shock.”
Morgan thinks it will show in the next generation. “Say you’ve got the next Ben Stokes at Middlesex. He’s coming through right now and he makes his debut in two years’ time. The question for him is: yes he wants to play Test cricket but there are only 11 players in the team and Ben Stokes is still around, and then this young kid gets offered a lot of money, life-changing money, to go and do something else. That’s serious pressure. It’s not an easy decision. And the answer depends on what background he comes from and where his principles lie.”
A lot of young players around the world are in that position already. “That’s where the future problem lies. It’s already happening in the West Indies and in other countries that don’t prioritise Test cricket.”
England still draw crowds for Test matches but that will not make them immune. “We will get guys who come along and say they only want to play T20 cricket. We will lose international players because they feel they have a limited amount of time and they want to make the most of their careers or because their priorities lie elsewhere because it’s not about playing for England, it’s about making money. That’s already happening around the rest of the world.” The England and Wales Cricket Board has three years before it launches its new city-based competition T20 and Morgan says it will need to spend a lot of that time preparing for the impact it will have on Test cricket.
The key question, he says, is how “you grab the people who are being engaged by T20 and introduce them to Test cricket, filtering them through at a lower level.” Which brings us back to Chance to Shine’s street cricket. “Sunil Narine comes from tape ball. That’s where he learned all his tricks and now his fingers are so strong from squeezing the tennis ball to get spin on it,” Morgan says. “In the next five years you will see a Sunil Narine playing for England or a guy with a Lasith Malinga action because they played tape ball cricket. That’s the beauty of it. It’s instant, it’s fast, there’s no barriers, everyone can play it.”
Morgan adds: “The city T20 competition is going to have a huge impact on our game. That should allow us to prepare for what’s going to happen with the players, to recognise that, yes, the formats are going to get further and further apart. So we should build them both hand in hand, alongside each other, to protect Test cricket. I think that’s very important because if we don’t do something about it in England, who is?”
By Eoin Morgan