Even the timing of his retirement was spot on. Two ducks against the Netherlands is hardly a glorious exit but by putting the team first Eoin Morgan has selflessly given England a better chance of emulating his 2019 World Cup success.
He could have simply retired from ODI cricket and gone on to the next Twenty20 World Cup in Australia, ensuring a gradual handover to Jos Buttler. He retained the full backing of his players as well as a board forever grateful he won them a global trophy (there is an enormous image of Morgan lifting the World Cup staring down on ECB execs as they make decisions in its boardroom).
But Morgan realised that while the mind is willing, his body is not and his own batting had declined below international standard. He was standing in the way of better, younger players and, in Buttler, has a deputy ready for his chance. Morgan’s departure gives Matthew Mott, the new coach, a chance to forge a relationship with Buttler in time for the 2023 World Cup defence in India.
Morgan’s last call is the right one in every sense, but then he barely put a foot wrong during seven years of captaincy that encompassed a World Cup victory, World Twenty20 runners-up and semi-final placings.
Yet his legacy is more than that thrilling day at Lord's on July 14, 2019 after one of the greatest games of cricket that that ground has ever hosted. Instead, his real achievement was the alchemy of transforming years of conservatism and caution into a golden modern era. His influence stretched way beyond the England dressing room. Young players in county academies are now batting without limits thanks to Morgan. Whole generations of batsmen have been inspired by his innovative team.
It was a side built in his image, for he was a player who pushed the boundaries. He retires as England’s leading ODI run scorer with 6,957 at a strike-rate of 93.
He forged his team’s culture, transformed tactics and always put the collective first. He was ice-cool under pressure, and that mask never slipped either in victory or defeat: none of his team-mates can remember him losing his temper.
He also created an open, welcoming team environment. As an outsider from Dublin who moved to England to achieve his cricketing ambitions, he understood the importance of inclusiveness. His World Cup final team included two British Muslims - Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali - and Barbados-born Jofra Archer. All three looked comfortable and happy playing for Morgan, and less so for other skippers.
Morgan's path to the top of the English game was far from straightforward. He grew up on the St Catherine’s Estate in Rush, Co Dublin, learning the game on tarmac outside the house or on the small park next door. He recalls travelling north from Dublin to play junior tournaments during the marching season. “Being in a situation you can’t control as a kid is quite scary,” he told an ECB film called No Boundaries, a rare occasion when he dropped his guard and talked of his past. “Find yourself in the wrong area and people turn the car upside down and burn it. People associated cricket as an English sport as well. It didn’t bother me at the time but it is wrong when you look back at it.”
Those experiences no doubt influenced the adult. Morgan was accused of being stubborn, putting the IPL before county cricket at a time when such things were frowned upon and his only real mis-step was pulling out of the 2016 tour to Bangladesh after a terrorist attack in Dhaka, the threat to the team was overplayed and the captain should have been there.
It was, however, an example of Morgan’s decisiveness, and generally it served him and England well, especially when he ripped up conventions after the debacle of the 2015 World Cup. There he was a young captain, thrust into the job by the sacking of Alastair Cook weeks before the tournament and saddled with a coach he liked, Peter Moores, but who was out of his depth.
He was fortunate Sir Andrew Strauss was appointed director of cricket in the acrid aftermath of that tournament. He sacked Moores, headhunted Bayliss on the basis of his one-day record and put white-ball cricket ahead of Test. It is a decision that led to a World Cup win, but of course had its own unintended consequences.
Strauss sat down with Morgan and they borrowed heavily from Brendon McCullum’s New Zealand side that thrashed England at the World Cup.
The players were allowed to develop a two-page tactical rule book (the management wanted them to feel in charge). It was short and simple, so as not to over-complicate and Morgan and analyst Nathan Leamon identified the core principles.
They likened building an innings to a cycling time trial: go hard and keep going to the finish line. Attack the first powerplay. England’s strike rate in the first 10 overs was 6.24 going into the 2019 World Cup, higher than any other team. The middle overs are when spin dominates so they identified Morgan, Buttler and Joe Root as fine players of slow bowling. The aim was a run a ball before the final 10 overs when their boundary percentage was higher than anyone else. Teams were steamrollered. England scored more than 300 on 38 occasions between June 2015 and the start of the World Cup and their run rate was 6.2 (next highest was 5.3).
'Next time hit it out the ground'
They also identified experience. Teams that won World Cups had an average of 70-80 caps per player. There were 88 games between the two World Cups so that meant picking players and sticking with them. “Batsmen realised if you got picked for the series you were pretty much going to play the whole series,” said assistant coach Paul Farbrace.
Data was used to liberate not intimidate, with players being set targets and told to beat them. It was a subtle shift from being told this is where we need to be, and if we don’t reach it then X amount of times the team loses.
“On so many occasions players would get caught out on boundary and say, 'Should I have got a single instead?' But Eoin said, 'No, next time hit it out the ground,'” said Moeen.
They set the world record for highest innings three times, culminating in 498 in Morgan’s penultimate game last week.
Morgan picked two spinners in Moeen and Rashid who could contain and attack. Liam Plunkett was the middle-over enforcer, Mark Wood the pace and the final piece was Archer.
The biggest disappointment was losing the Twenty20 World Cup final in 2016 to West Indies when Carlos Brathwaite staged a last-over mugging on Stokes. The semi-final exit from the 2017 Champions Trophy was brutal for Morgan at the time but a useful canary in the cage, with England learning from their failure to adapt on a slow Cardiff pitch when they encountered a similar one in the 2019 final.
Morgan enjoyed a relaxed environment. His approach to training was to do what was necessary, no more. He banned whole team meetings, thinking they were hot-air exercises. He enjoyed horse racing and a night out but bought into the team curfew after the Stokes-Bristol incident.
Along with Root, the Test captain, he introduced the team mantra of 'Courage, Unity and Respect'. It was revealed to the players in Sri Lanka in 2018 after a long process that involved Morgan consulting figures from football and rugby. He met with Manchester City’s psychologist, Peter Lindsay, who read the poem 'This is the Place' by Tony Walsh that celebrates Manchester’s past and a line of which is translated for the club’s new foreign recruits. It shows nationality does not matter in a multi-cultural team. Morgan wanted something similar.
Cricketers live itinerant lifestyles, hopping from tour to tour but Morgan realised one thing stays constant: the cap presented to a player on debut. The team would live by three simple rules. The cap is a metaphor for a career - guard it and treasure it. The crown emblem stands for taking the team forward and the three lions underneath were each given a meaning: one for courage, one for unity, one for respect.
It can sound like sentimental tosh to some but young players introduced to the squad, and hearing Morgan speak of these things, say they were inspired. It also set the rulebook as Alex Hales discovered: when he stepped over the line once too often, he was dropped and never played again.
“Sit next to him or on the field, and you never see him lose his rag," Moeen said. "If he needs to be firm one on one he will do it in a nice, calm way. His demeanour was the best.”
Right to the end, Morgan never let it slip.
England's white-ball captains - ranked and rated
by Scyld Berry
6. Kevin Pietersen
Everything that Pietersen touched turned to gold at first, at home. He brought in a new spinner - his “little mate” from Nottinghamshire, as he called him, Samit Patel - and won his early games in the same heady atmosphere as the new Stokes-McCullum era. But things went into decline abroad, where man-management is more important. Leading by example, Pietersen could show his players where to go; taking them with him was another matter. Four years ago, during a warm-up match in New Zealand, Stokes spent an hour walking round the Hamilton ground with his struggling Durham team-mate Mark Stoneman, trying to pump up his tyres.
5. Sir Andrew Strauss
It was the 50-over World Cup quarter-final of 2011 in Colombo. A part-time offspinner opened the bowling for Sri Lanka - and England were paralysed. Strauss himself, opening, could not sweep, let alone reverse-sweep or slog-sweep, and Sri Lanka were on top thereafter: England exited the tournament abysmally. Strauss, to his credit, made amends when he became director of England cricket and made sure, under Eoin Morgan, they never played the same way again, especially against spin.
4. Michael Vaughan
In their first T20 international in 2005, England batted with a similar approach to Baz-ball, based on only two seasons of domestic T20, and took the same fearlessness into the Ashes, where they scored 401 at five an over at Edgbaston. But there was not the same subtlety: the bowling was all right-arm pace, no spinner nor left-arm quick. And in ODIs England could not break the conventional mould, because their captain did not have the confidence to define a new style. He batted best after he had bowled a spell, which was not often.
3. Sir Alastair Cook
It was somewhat of an anomaly that England became number one in the world ODI rankings. As one of the team, Graeme Swann pointed out that it was because England were playing a lot of their games at home, scoring 250 off their 50 overs and defending it with conventional pace. The revolution - using two spinners, attacking with the bat from the start - did not begin until Cook had gone. Even so, England would have done better at the 2015 World Cup if he had stayed on, and opened instead of Ian Bell, instead of getting a knock on his door at Christmas shortly before the tournament.
2. Paul Collingwood
Collingwood was a reluctant leader at first, who came good in the end by winning the T20 World Cup in 2010. He experimented; giving his seamers spells of one over on a green pitch in South Africa in a T20 international did not work, but bringing in a left-arm pace bowler in Ryan Sidebottom certainly did, and so did his employment of two spinners, if stretching a point to call Mike Yardy a spinner. Above all, he could set a dynamic example in the field, like Morgan, while his captaincy was maturing.
1. Eoin Morgan (by a mile)
Progressed England's white-ball cricket further than all his predecessors put together. His phlegmatism under fire for a start; his brilliant fielding at extra-cover; his record of never betraying disappointment with a fielder or bowler by a single word or gesture; and his ability to hit in the air was ahead of its time, too, although others came along who could hit 360 degrees, like Jos Buttler. It is a great leader who has a clear vision then implements it fully, as Morgan has done.