Near Port Elizabeth in South Africa, preparing for the 2007 World Cup, Eoin Morgan had been running on the sand dunes for hours. Ireland’s South African coach Adrian Birrell had conceived this three-week-long torturous plan to get his cricketers fit for the World Cup. Eventually, utterly exhausted, the team reached the last dune. Morgan huffing away was just ahead of David Langford-Smith, the popular seamer who would become famous for his wicket-celebrating dance during Ireland’s dream run in the Caribbean.
“These dunes were of all shapes and sizes, and to this day it was the hardest session I’ve ever endured. Our last dune was the biggest, get to the top, and the session is over. I followed Moggie up but he stopped half way to vomit. The spray hit me in the face, and it started a chain reaction of us throwing up our breakfast. Not funny at the time, but hilarious looking back at it,” David says.
“Eoin isn’t the stern faced guy people might think. He has a great sense of humour, but he is just very focused. On that pre-World Cup camp there were times the heat got to us. We couldn’t wait till the session ended. He and Porty (William Porterfield) would always stay back and hit extra balls. From a very early age he knew what he wanted to do, who he wanted to be, and nothing was going to stop him.”
Stephen Tonge, head of sport at a school, realised that trait when he was chatting with kids at his classroom in Dublin, Ireland. “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Most dreams are shared. But a 14-year old says he wants to play cricket for England. Something in that voice and the look in his eyes has stayed with Stephen. “Lot’s of kids have dreams, but when I listened to Eoin, I thought, ‘Huh, he might actually do it.’ That moment has stayed. He was a very nice kid, very stubborn and focussed, mentally tough, used to keep his cards close to chest, poker faced — a trait of the region in North County Dublin he came from: Fingal. Out there in Fingal, they are friendly and nice, but reserved. Stubborn and single-minded, very comfortable with who and how they are. You never can tell what they thinking!”
Morgan was the first boy to be given a scholarship at the Catholic University School, a private school where Stephen would see his ambitions grow. “It was clear that Eoin was going to be special, so when Kevin Jennings proposed the scholarship, no one I think murmured.”
With Morgan, moments freeze in the minds of people he comes across. Like John Pryor, the coach at Malahide Cricket Club where a 13-year old Morgan came over to play from his old club Rush. It was an Under-15 England vs Ireland game. Paul Fabrace, who would later be part of England’s national team coaching set up, was heading the young tourists. The game was a bit rough. Ireland vs England, no surprise passions flowed. “Morgan would stand at short-leg and chirp away at the English. It was a tense game but he held his own and I remember him telling the other kids to not back away. He has never backed away from a contest since he was a kid. He inspired the others. He also hit valuable runs but his attitude stood out.”
Fabrace noticed and took the kid for a chat in a corner at the end of the game. “I knew it wasn’t about Dublin’s weather,” Pryor laughs. “That was the moment when the dream firmed in Eoin’s minds. When Fabrace told him as much that one day, if he played his cards rightly, he could be playing for England.”
He hasn’t forgotten his roots, though. A couple of years ago when England played Ireland in Dublin, Pryor was standing on a road corner, puffing away on his cigarette. “Eoin walked with his team-mates, he saw me and shouted, “That’s John Pryor, a true legend!’ And he introduced his players to me and we had a bit of nostalgia.”
Morgan was five when Kenny Carroll, who would go on to play cricket and hockey for Ireland, saw him first. “It was a Under-11’s game and there he was, a five-year-old kid in big pads. I am not sure how much he scored — must have, he always does — but that image has stayed.” Not long after that Kenny would hear a lot more about the kid. “He was a prodigy, and very soon everyone in Irish cricket had heard of him. ‘Seen that prodigy from Dublin, the Fingal kid?’ He already had an air of confidence even in the times when he wasn’t scoring. He had that about him always: very confident and sure of himself.”
Carroll’s story offers a fascinating interlude and provides context to Ireland’s cricket. He played a World Cup, tried to play as a hockey professional in the London Olympics, but Ireland lost to Korea in the qualifiers. Then, reality hit. What to do now? What do cricketers in Ireland do? Carroll became a postman, clutching grey-clothed postbag of dreams and regrets, of hopes and hurts, across Dublin. “It would have been foolish for someone as talented as Eoin to remain and become one of us.” After a few years, Carroll became the developmental manager of cricket in Ireland, and for the last four years or so, he has does a similar role but for hockey. “Things are changing for sports in our country.”
Back then, it was a different world. When Birrell, the man who came from South Africa to coach Ireland and changed its landscape for good, arrived in Dublin, he met John Wright, a key administrator in Ireland cricket who lifted cricket from the veil of anonymity. Wright handed a bag of balls and a bat and said, “Right, there you go. Do your thing.” That was it. In the 2003 World Cup qualifiers, Ireland reached a state, hit by injuries and amateurism, they sent out journalists as substitutes to play in a game.
On his debut game for an Ireland club, Morgan went out to bat at No.3, got out, walked back to the dressing room to see Paul Mooney, another Ireland international, sleeping in the dressing room. Mooney woke up after a while, went out to join Morgan and asked him, “Which number are you going to bat?” Laughter. “Eddie was fantastic for us,” Carroll recalls. “He would go from ground to ground on weekends, spend 30 mins at each venue, see all the matches as possible, identify local talent and promote them. A young Eoin was one of them.”
Pryor, the coach at Malahide Cricket Club, remembers the first time he met Morgan. “Must have been 8 or thereabouts. I was an umpire in a game that he played with his sister. He was a pretty decent medium pacer who could swing the ball — and I remember he appealed a lot that match, every time it hit the pad, he would scream. I told him, ‘Kid you are swinging it too much. From the middle, it’s going to go down the leg side. Now, if it had started from outside off, a different story.’ Of course, then, he started to bend them from outside off and I did give couple of lbw decisions! He was way better than anyone else in that match — shouldn’t have been playing really, but that was Irish cricket then. Not so many competitive cricket on. After a couple of years or so, he came to join Malahide, his dad brought him.”
One day, Pryor was sitting with Wright, the patron saint of Irish cricket who died in 2008, and Morgan’s dad in a pub. “Eoin was drinking some orange juice, and so was his dad who didn’t drink much. Suddenly, Eoin said he was feeling sick, and even as his dad got up to take him to the toilet, Eoin stumbled over Wright. Bit of a soup, can’t tell you more! The dad was embarrassed, Eoin too was – and Wright acted as if nothing had happened but the dad kept telling Eoin to apologise. Think he did it for days and months to come!” Pryor laughs.
At Fingal, a few footsteps away from a makeshift cricket ground, Morgan lived with his parents and five siblings in a three-bedroom house. A concrete pathway that ran against a pebble-tiled wall of their neighbour’s garage became their pitch. For the left-hander Morgan, the offside was walled out and, unsurprisingly, his leg-side play became his dominant trait.
Fingal also gave him that stubborn mindset that allowed him to change the face of ODI cricket in England. That how-Morgan-flipped-English-cricket story has been well-documented, but to understand his singlemindedness, we have to retreat to Fingal. Cricket in Ireland was big in the late 1800s and cricket leagues flourished in the 1900s, but the conflict with the UK ran out cricket. It was banned from Northern Ireland.
Gaelic football was encouraged as nationalism and pride spread across Ireland. Cricket died in rural Ireland and even started to fade away from the cities. Except for one corner in County Dublin — Fingal. It’s where a few English landowners had spread the game, encouraging their local staff members to play in teams and it’s where cricket found its rebel home in times of conflict. “They kept playing it when rest of the country had given up on cricket, Fingal people, I tell you, you can’t change their minds,” laughs Carroll.
Fingal means Fine Gall (foreign tribe), a region where Scandinavians settled down. It’s the Vikings territory. They had their own language, Fingallian, a hybrid of Old English and Old Norse with Gaelic influences — now extinct. Morgan is from Rush in Fingal, a small seaside town on the slightly hillier area of the Irish sea coast.
One of the leg-side heaves from Morgan, on that concrete pathway, would have landed on a building with a big pillared stone portico. That grandiose portico is all that remains of Kenure House, whose owners were the ones who introduced cricket to the area. Even when the country was raging against Britain and cricket was banned, Fingal never abandoned it. Unsurprisingly, then, Morgan’s childhood would revolve around bat and ball. At the end of school summer, in his teens, he would head to Middlesex in England for more cricket.
The moment that made David Langford-Smith realise that Moggie’s days with Ireland cricket are numbered came in Abu Dhabi.
“He had a lean World Cup in ’07, no doubt he was disappointed. It didn’t change anyone’s mind about his ability though. In ’08 we were in Abu Dhabi playing the UAE invitational side. Moggie went in at 3 in about the 4th over. After 50 overs he was 196 not out, using every inch of the park. The shots he played were breathtaking, and I knew we wouldn’t have him much longer. I just wish he got a bit more Test cricket. I watched him score 214 not out in Abu Dhabi in our 4 day Intercontinental Cup match, only a few days after his 196 not out in white ball cricket. The concentration he showed was worthy of Test cricket.
“There will always be an argument as to who’s better, Moggie or Ed Joyce. I can just say that we were blessed to have two such amazing cricketers in one generation, and I’ll always be proud to have been there to witness it,” David says.
By 2007, Joyce, who had left Ireland to play in England, had already paid his debts to Irish cricket. “He played for us in the 2005 qualifiers for the next World Cup, smashed big scores in every match, took us to the semis almost singlehandedly and then left back to England, saying ‘I have done my job. Qualification is done now, let me return to county cricket,’” Carroll recalls.
In 2007, Joyce was sitting with Andrew Strauss, watching a 50-over game involving Middlesex at Lord’s. “Andrew Caddick was pacy but Moggie (Eoin) was picking length balls off middle stump over midwicket into the stands. It was something to see this little ginger Irish guy take on a huge former England bowler with so much composure. Strauss and I knew we were watching a pretty unusual talent coming through,” Joyce had told The Times.
Strauss would later be the director of English cricket and instrumental in making sweeping changes and allowing Morgan to enforce his vision. “Ask anyone who’s played under him for England in the last few years,” Joyce said. “They will tell you there is no doubting who is the boss.”
The last four years have belonged to Captain Morgan. A boy who very early in his life knew what he wanted to be. Where he wanted to be. In the end, reality surpassed his dreams. An Irishman leading England to their first World Cup triumph, high-fiving with kids of different backgrounds at the Oval, a day after the thriller at Lord’s.
He would say that Adil Rashid had told the team before the Super Over that “Allah was with us”. Also, only one of the two captains out there has his home country associated with luck. But nothing, until that greatest moment of his life, has been because of any fortuitous turn. A boy’s dream, a teenager’s sweat, and a man’s stubborn ambition. Sometimes, in sport as in life, events get out of control of mere mortals. Such has been his incredible dreamy journey from a hilly coastal region in north-western Dublin that of the two captains out there, perhaps, the cricketing gods felt that the Irishman deserved it more. Who can grudge him this triumphal moment of his life?