A blackmail letter arrived at the offices of England Cricket Board in 2015. From a man threatening to expose sexual texts from Eoin Morgan to an Australian woman who the blackmailer would later come to date. He wanted 35,000 pounds – from Morgan or the board to keep quiet.
At that point, Morgan was playing in the 2015 World Cup. Coincidence or not, he would go through a horror run with the bat and see England being shoved out of the tournament. The board sorted out that blackmailer, the lady came out in support of Morgan, and that was that. But English ODI cricket seemed well and truly buried.
Kane Williamson was hitting match-winning sixes against Australia in that World Cup in a league game, and was part of the team under Brendon McCullum that would waltz through to the final that year. “I was surprised when he hit that six against Australia then, and when he did it against Pakistan in this world cup, it brought a smile,” Josh Syms, Williamson’s school coach would say. Soon, after that World Cup, Williamson became the captain.
Andrew Strauss, former England captain, was watching that World Cup in anger. He was upset that the old mistakes from earlier English teams were being repeated again. The way out was clear: The English condescension towards ODIs, what they called pyjama cricket, had to go. “If we wanted to do well at world cups, we had to prioritise white-ball cricket and stop treating it as secondary until next tournament comes up,” he would say later after becoming director of cricket for England, a post that he held until this year when he gave up after his wife succumbed to a rare form of lung cancer. Strauss realised that he needed to drastically alter the style and attitude towards the 50-over game and identified three facets: A coach, a captain, and players who could – and wanted – to play that brand of cricket. A lot who wouldn’t retreat to the outdated style of play at the sign of first loss. The best thing with Strauss was that he realised he had been part of the problem – that someone like him shouldn’t have played 127 ODIs in his career. That was definition of outdatedness, he was trying to eradicate now. He had a heart-to-heart frank chat with Morgan about how he wants to lead new England. Morgan was clear how he wanted to do it his way: aggressive, positive, and a fearless style of play. In some ways, he was inspired by Brendon McCullum’s style of captaincy in that 2015 World Cup.
Williamson, meanwhile, had to ensure he left his stamp on the New Zealand team that was under the halo of McCullum. He wanted to do it his way: which was directly opposite to McCullum’s methods. “Brendon had a gambler’s instinct and an extrovert in the way he played and captained,” says Williamson’s long-time coach David Johnston. “Kane captains the way he bats— in a logical considered thought-out way. Kane is developing a very good captaincy record. His leadership has been outstanding and he has an ability to win the tight games in an unassuming way.”
There was nothing unassuming about Morgan. He couldn’t have been: born and brought up in Dublin, he had to be really ambitious—and openly so—if he wanted to be a professional cricketer. Pretty early in the piece, he would tell everyone that he wanted to play for England one day. On the day England were out of the World Cup, then coach Peter Moores called a team-meeting and Morgan would note how a few players ranted but took no responsibility. Sitting with him was Paul Fabrace, the assistant coach, who would later say, “All it became was a finger-pointing meeting. A disastrous meeting at the end of a disastrous World Cup.” Morgan still has notes from that meeting. “The thing I wrote down is that not many people looked to themselves. The blame was elsewhere. An emotional frustration from everybody.” He knew when Strauss backed him, he had to change a few things. Ravi Bopara, Ian Bell, Gary Ballance, James Tredwell and James Anderson didn’t play a single ODI after that and Stuart Broad just two. Jos Buttler, Joe Root, Moeen Ali, and Chris Woakes are the four, apart from Morgan, from that team who are still playing.
Changing team ethos
Williamson too set about establishing a different team ethos. “We have a very different group now, a slightly different vibe and ethos about how we operate (from that 2015 team).”
There are two types of successful cricketers, especially captains, out there. Players who love winning, and those who hate losing. Morgan, who has invested so much of his energies to somehow work a dreamy cricketing life for him – moving away from Ireland, stepping out of amateurism, plunging himself in a tough professional world with nothing but confidence in his own skills and ability to write his own destiny. Morgan hates losing.
Asked if he is a man who loves winning or hates losing, Williamson says he “prefers winning’. It is probably the best way to say it. Sometimes tough experiences, being on the wrong side of results can slap you in the face and give you a glaring lesson and if you ignore that, I don’t think it’s a positive thing.” A captain who hates losing, and one who strives to be level-headed about the two would lead their teams to maiden World Cup final.
It’s easy to be almost smitten with Kane Williamson. Humour, intelligence, logical brain, the ability to stay grounded, level-headed — and that beard. Above all, that cricketing intelligence. He always as a chuckle, a dry sense of humour even in dour press conferences and according to his mentors in New Zealand, that’s how he is.
Morgan has come to be known as the great poker-faced English captain of our times. You can sense the pressure he has is of a different magnitude than that of Williamson’s. The New Zealander is one of the world’s best batsman in all formats. Morgan is just an ODI player but who often does talk about how proud he is in changing the face of English cricket in the last four years.
He was an outsider who revolutionised English cricket, an Irishman who helped England – a lesser man couldn’t have handled the associated pressures that come with it.
Not that Williamson has an easy ride this world cup, back home. Not that he is getting only adulation. Johnston talks about how the media have sort of longed for McCullum’s style of play. “In the last six weeks, it’s been interesting in New Zealand how our media have been comparing the world cup to the last one and in particular the captaincy of McCullum to that of Kane – generally, in an unfavourable way saying he is not attacking enough etc.” Williamson has been asked about the reactions back home and he has side-stepped them with a smile. “No, I am not aware of them” or some such thing. And would talk about how he and his team knows what they are doing.
So, what are the two teams doing? What is their style? Morgan’s England is being in-your-face. Williamson’s is quieter, staying in the moment and working out things logically. Morgan’s in some ways is pre-determined. That his England would come out and attack. Williamson’s is more a reactionary to the development of the moment. Like his batting. He reacts to the demands of the ball. His captaincy reacts to the demands of the situation. He would get out there, assess the pitch after few overs, arrive at a possible target, and drag his whole team towards that. Morgan’s England come out attacking and re-assess in case that initial plan goes awry.
So who would win? By all accounts, England are the favourites but don’t count Williamson’s team out. If anything, keep a close eye on them. If the Lord’s pitch does retain the grass it has on Saturday afternoon and if the sun stays behind the clouds – as it has on Saturday – it could well be the smiling beard that lifts that cup. A clash between a team that stays in the moment, reacts to what is thrown at them and a team that likes to seize the moment and leave its imprint.