Wednesday, 29 February 2012

It's all upto Morgan

For much of his career, Eoin Morgan has had the door opened welcomingly wide for him. No longer
Ed Smith
February 29, 2012

As two dazzling, attacking shot-players, Eoin Morgan and Kevin Pietersen are often talked about in the same breath. Indeed, they are the two top batsmen in the World T20 rankings. But there the similarities end.

I am not referring to their diverging current form. Pietersen has confirmed a spectacular return to form, with two ODI hundreds and a match-winning 62 not out in the deciding T20. Morgan, in contrast, has struggled this winter and been omitted from the England Test squad that will play Sri Lanka.

No, the deeper differences are more revealing. Pietersen is a natural outsider who has had to make his own way; Morgan has always benefitted from the smiles and support of the cricketing establishment. Pietersen forced his way into international cricket through sheer weight of runs; Morgan was hand-picked as a potential star. Pietersen's critics have always been waiting for him to fail; Morgan's many admirers have always made the most of his successes.

Pietersen came from a great cricketing culture, South Africa, where he never broke through. Even in Natal, he was not earmarked for future greatness. In coming to England to pursue a better cricketing future, Pietersen made himself doubly an outsider - the foreigner determined to achieve greatness among an adopted people.

Morgan, in contrast, is the lauded favourite son of Irish cricket. He has always been the brightest star in a small galaxy. Not for him the waiting and wondering if he would make the grade. Irish cricket has been spreading the word about Morgan - that he was a phenomenal talent - from his teenage years.

In 2007, Middlesex played Ireland in Dublin. Ironically, two of Middlesex's best players were Irish - Morgan and Ed Joyce - so it was a homecoming of sorts for them. Though Joyce was the older, more senior figure, it was Morgan who bestrode the scene. He was a different man in Ireland; he was top dog and he knew it. In time, Middlesex and England fans also came to know and admire that cocksure character.

But if we dig a little deeper, the Morgan story is less conclusive that it first appears. When he was first selected for England in 2009, Morgan had already proved certain things in county cricket. We knew that few players (if any) have a greater natural ability to strike the ball with immense power derived from timing rather than brute strength. We knew that he had an instinctive feel for one-day and T20 cricket, a hunter's thrill of the chase and a showman's love for the stage. We knew that his outward demeanour was apparently confident and yet hard to read.

We also knew - if anyone cared to look at the numbers - that his first-class record was unremarkable (he averaged in the mid-30s) and that his temperament had rarely been tested in circumstances that didn't suit him.

Now, three years later, our knowledge of Morgan has not advanced all that much. Yes, we have learnt that he was not phased or overawed by international cricket. But few thought he would be.

In more substantive terms, Morgan has succeeded at things he was always good at, and struggled at disciplines that do not come easily to him. Morgan's instant successes in international T20 and ODI cricket reflected his dominant reputation in those two formats in county cricket. In the same way, his relative lack of success in Test cricket reflects his track record in all first-class cricket.

Sport gets harder in many respects, and the sportsmen who thrive in the long term are those who have the personality to take more of the weight on their own shoulders. Ultimately a great player must be his own problem-solver, therapist and coach

We are about to learn a lot more about Morgan. This is the first time in his cricketing life that he has been on the outside. Until now, he has been the beneficiary of a never-ending fast track - the path ahead constantly being cleared for him. At Middlesex the coaching staff fretted about anything that might "hold Morgan back", even when his first-class numbers did not demand selection. One coach used to begin selection meetings by asking, "How are we going to get Morgan into the team?" As though Morgan himself shouldn't have to worry about the troublesome details of getting runs and making his own case. England, too, picked him at the first available opportunity.

Well, the era of fast-tracking and "how are we going to get Morgan into the team?" just ended. For now, he is on his own, armed with just a bat and his dazzling skills. He will have to make his own way back. The door is far from closed. But nor is it permanently wide open.

Great players in every sport will tell you that it is much harder to stay at the very top than it is to get there in the first place. The same point can be phrased differently. As sportsmen get older, they have to become ever more self-reliant. The support systems drop away, one by one, leaving you standing alone. Adoring coaches who were once enamoured of sheer talent become frustrated by the failure to convert talent into performance; team-mates who once sensed a star in the making begin to expect games to be won, not merely adorned; fans are no longer thrilled by what you can do, but increasingly annoyed by what you cannot.

Sport gets harder in many respects, and the sportsmen who thrive in the long term are those who have the personality to take more of the weight on their own shoulders. Ultimately a great player must be his own problem-solver, therapist and coach. That revolves around character, not talent.

Many people - including me - believe Morgan is one of the most gifted cricketers in the world. In my new book I wanted to explore the careers of a couple of athletes - drawn from all sports - who had been blessed with truly remarkable talent. The two examples I used were Roger Federer and Morgan.

Morgan has already proved me right about his talent. Now comes the interesting part: what is he going to do with it?

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