My wife, Denise, will always claim she played a vital role in England’s 2019 World Cup triumph and, to be honest, who am I to disagree. It was in the Autumn of 2008, at the wedding reception of Francesca Harris and Ed Joyce, the former Middlesex, Sussex, Ireland and England cricketer, when Denise tapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘There’s a captain for you.’
I had recently been offered the role of Managing Director of Cricket at Middlesex CCC and finding a new captain – Shaun Udal, the current captain, was aged 40 – was high on my ‘to do’ list. What Denise had seen on the dance floor at Wicklow Cricket Club, Dublin, was a young, fresh faced Eoin Morgan take charge of a rabble of children who were running and jumping around chaotically, and quickly transform them into a disciplined and organized outfit working as a unit.
As to be expected I followed my wife’s advice and offered Eoin the role of vice-captain for 2009, which he gratefully accepted. Right from the start he held the respect of the group and led them impressively. For a short while it seemed one issue had been sorted.
2009 also happened to be the summer when Eoin broke into the England one-day and T20 teams, which was a great moment for Eoin and Middlesex. As a consequence of this, however, Middlesex never felt the full benefit of having him as our leader. It had been the same with Andrew Strauss five years earlier, so never let it be said that Middlesex CCC do not do their bit for English cricket.
Middlesex’s relationship with cricket in Ireland has been stronger than that of any other county and it is one we have benefitted enormously from. It began in the early 80’s ’s when Mike Brearley invited Dermot Monteith to London to play for the club when Phil Edmonds and John Emburey were away on England duty. The relationship with Monteith created a conversation that resulted in Ed Joyce, Eoin, Paul Stirling and Andrew Balbirnie crossing the Irish Sea to pursue their dreams.
Unfortunately, Ireland’s desire to become a full member of the ICC and playing Test cricket closed this path but the relationship Middlesex has had is one the club is extremely proud of and one it is lucky to have had.
It was in 2001 when Middlesex were made aware of Eoin. It was suggested to Jason Pooley, the then 2nd XI Coach, that he should travel to Eton College to have look at a young left-hander playing for Ireland U15’s against England U13’s.
Eoin only made 20 but Pooley knew straight away he had seen something special. He immediately met with Eoin’s father, Jody, and arranged for Eoin to come to spend the summer with Middlesex, living with a family in Finchley.
When I spoke to Pooley about Eoin he said: “He was small but you could see straight away there was something special about his game. For years I had stood at the other end watching Mark Ramprakash bat, so I knew what a good player looked like, and Eoin had something special. There was a calmness about his cricket. He made things look so easy and he struck the ball beautifully. It wasn’t strength that got the ball to the boundary it was timing.”
In the following years, around 2005/6, whilst I was the cricket correspondent with The Independent, I began to hear of another talented young Irish player coming through. This one, it was said, was better than Ed Joyce – which was saying something because Ed was a beautiful batsman.
Yet it was only on my return to Middlesex that I witnessed it first-hand. It was at Canterbury on 11 May 2009 that he plundered the Kent attack to all corners of the St Lawrence Ground. Eoin didn’t slog his way to 161 off 138 balls, he skillfully struck the ball into gaps or areas where fielders had just been moved from. By the end of the Middlesex innings Rob Key, the Kent captain, looked ten years older than he had at the toss.
A shot that Eoin played magnificently and often then was the reverse sweep. An exceptional part of his batting is the way he uses his wrists and this shot, more than any, requires great dexterity. Many put his ability to play this shot down to him playing Gaelic sports like hurling as a boy.
And it was in a conversation about this stroke that I witnessed a strength of character and belief that would come through when he became England’s captain. If Eoin believes in something, he believes in something and he will not take a backward step.
It was in the winter of 2009 that I arranged for all Middlesex’s young batsmen to go out for dinner with Graham Gooch, the finest cricketer and man I played cricket with, to talk about the art of batting. During the evening Gooch asked Eoin why he continued to play the reverse sweep – a risky shot in Gooch’s eyes – when it was safer to hit the ball down the ground. An unintimidated Eoin pushed back and said he was more comfortable playing the reverse sweep than the extra cover drive or the forward defensive. A healthy debate took place but Eoin did not back down.
Another example of Eoin showing those around him that he was his own man came when he was invited to be England's white ball captain.
When I look back at my time as an England selector and the decisions James Whitaker, Mick Newell and myself made, making Eoin England’s white ball captain was one of the finest. Yes, the timing, just before the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, wasn’t great for Eoin. The appointment was greeted quizzically in many areas of the media too.
Being close to Eoin I was asked to speak to him about the prospect of taking on the captaincy as Whitaker went through the process of informing Alastair Cook he would be stood down. Time zones did not help the process as I was on holiday in Barbados at the time, Eoin was in Australia and the other selectors were in the UK.
When I explained the situation to Eoin, rather than say ‘Yes’ on the spot, he said: ‘could I go away to think about it.’
When I informed the ECB of this response the general tone of the reply was: ‘Think about?, Think about it? Does he want to be the bloody captain England or not? We’ve got a time-line here and we need to know.’
With a flea in my ear I tried to push Eoin but he wouldn’t be rushed, and rightly so. He wanted to know and to be sure that our decision to offer him the England captaincy was not just a short-term fix to patch things up before the World Cup. He wanted to know that we had long-term plans for him to be in charge, which we did.
This loyalty was immediately put to the test following England’s early and embarrassing exit from the 2015 World Cup. In some ways it would have been easy to cede to public and media opinion - to move Eoin on. This option, however, was never considered by the three of us. We knew Eoin had what it took and our role was to support, protect and give him the time and resources he needed.
With English cricket at a pretty low point Trevor Bayliss and Andrew Strauss were signed up by the ECB, and the rest, as they say, is history.
From this moment on Eoin, Bayliss and Strauss grabbed hold of England’s white ball cricket and, as he did on the dance floor of Wicklow Cricket Club, Eoin transformed an underperforming horde into a team that was the envy of world cricket.
Lifting the World Cup on that unforgettable evening in June 2019 was the result of four years hard work and total commitment to a cause. And along the way Eoin took inspiration and guidance from his close friend Brendon McCullum. And such an influence can already be seen in how the England coach is influencing Ben Stokes.
Morgan knew that if the England team were to play a certain brand of cricket he, the captain, had to set the tone, even if, on occasions, a seemingly rash shot cost him his wicket. In the years building up to 2019 England continued to be positive and aggressive even if they were in trouble. At times it didn’t come off and criticism was aimed at Eoin and his team, but he was playing the long game rather than worrying about the next newspaper headline.
And Stokes is doing exactly the same now. Had England lost any of the Tests against New Zealand, which they could easily have done, the captain and coach would have been questioned and criticised but, again, both Stokes and McCullum are looking further down the line and not just at the next result.
To quantify Eoin’s contribution to English cricket solely by his captaincy would be a huge injustice because he has been a magnificent player too. Yes, towards the end of his career his form was patchy, but he walks away from international cricket having scored over 3,000 more white ball runs than any other England player. Only Joe Root has scored more one-day hundreds than Eoin’s 13 and Jos Buttler is still 88 sixes behind him in the big hitting table.
In and amongst all his white ball cricket is it easy to forget that Eoin also scored two Test hundreds and averaged just over 30 in the longest form of the game, something many of England’s recent top-order batsmen have been unable to do. A one-trick pony he certainly isn’t.
Along with Canterbury in 2009 I have many memories of watching Eoin bat but as I sit here now three stand out. The first was in 2012 where he and Paul Stirling scored hundreds against Lancashire at Lord’s. Eoin would have loved the partnership with his close mate Stirlo and his 116 contained 11 sixes and came off just 54 balls.
The next occasion was on a balmy summers evening in 2019 when he and AB de Villiers took Surrey to the cleaners in a Vitality Blast fixture in front a full-house to be one of the finest evenings Middlesex have had at the Home of Cricket. And the last came a couple of weeks later when I watched in disbelief at home as he smashed 83 off 29 balls against Somerset in Taunton to take Middlesex to the T20 Quarter Finals.
And on the note of Middlesex, it has been interesting to follow the relationships both he and Strausshave had with Middlesex members and supporters. My sense, sadly, is that it has been lukewarm for both, which is solely down to their responsibilities growing with England.
I can understand the frustration and disappointment of losing such talent, both physically and emotionally but, equally, playing a huge role in the development of such significant figures in World Cricket is something Middlesex should be extremely proud of. They are one of the principle reasons why we exist as a club.
Middlesex are not and will continue not to be the only county to ‘lose’ players to England and, for me, it is like a parent dealing with a daughter or son leaving home – at times it is hard to accept that the thing you least want to happen is the thing they most want to take place. And how can you deny someone that opportunity.
So what now for Eoin? I can't imagine there being a shortage of offers coming his way, and I am sure he will think each through and make good decisions. I also wouldn’t be surprised if, at some stage this summer, he is found mulling these offers over whilst sitting on the roller at Totteridge Millhillians Cricket Club in North London. It is a place where he has often found some time to contemplate in the past.
In closing, on behalf of Middlesex CCC, I would like to thank Eoin for all that he has produced and achieved for Middlesex and English cricket. He has worn both badges, along with Shamrock of Ireland, with distinction and pride. But most of all I would like to thank him for being a mate, and a bloody good one at that.