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Cricket news - The Baby Whisperer and an unbreakable bond
At the end of England's football World Cup journey in Russia, just before the squad dispersed after reaching the semi-finals, Gareth Southgate assembled his charges for one last briefing.
Despite the disappointment at missing out on what would have been England's first final since 1966, spirits were high. But this wasn't a pat on the back session. Instead, as a man who had been part of tournament squads in the past, Southgate had some hard truths.
He explained to them this would be the final time these 23 players would be together. With their ages ranging from 19 to 32, combined with the uncontrollable nature of professional sport, these individuals would never be as one again. For some this was their first international tournament; for others, their last.
The message was to remember these times and those around you. Skill might have got them to this level, but fate was what brought them together.
Looking at the make-up of this England cricket team on the cusp of the 2019 World Cup, similar emotions are evoked. There are ten years between Jofra Archer (the youngest, at 24) and Liam Plunkett. Six players from the 15 are likely to be featuring in their last 50-over tournament.
Five of the squad began their lives in different countries. Three owe their spots to a combination of a shifting in qualification criteria, a last-minute change of tactic and one failed drugs test. But vitally, all 15, to a man, deserve to be here. There are zero passengers.
Yet, digging a little deeper, you find the vagaries of chaos do not deserve that much credit with Morgan's World Cup favourites. The threads of the relationships between the majority of this 15 are long and overlapping along English cricket's winding route to the top.
Nine of this squad represented England at under-19 level, with four - Joe Root, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and James Vince - playing together at the 2010 U19 World Cup. Coincidentally, the 2006 edition saw Eoin Morgan's Ireland take on Moeen Ali's England.
Going down the chain, you get to the Bunbury Festival - a week-long tournament founded by David English in which the most promising under-15 school cricketers in the country duke it out. Around half this squad are Bunbury alumni. Such was the success of the festival that, in 2018, the England and Wales Cricket Board took it off the hands of the English Schools Cricket Association, absorbing it into the age-group pathways.
Moving down further into regional systems reveals some older links. Buttler and Root first played against each other around the age of 12, the former a consistent part of a West of England set-up that also featured Vince and Liam Dawson who have played together for Wiltshire since they were nine.
While those early meetings on the field sowed the seeds for future camaraderie, perhaps even dovetailing as cricketers in similar roles to what they occupy now, credit may also be due to the shared experiences in their younger days off the field. Specifically, teenage hijinks.
Nights out on U19 or Lions tours are rare and controlled, so the odd orchestrated sneak-out required a degree of planning and, occasionally, shuffling up a drain pipe to sneak back in. Even the most trivial larks build trust.
For example, some of the 2010 U19 crop, which included Root, Buttler, Stokes and Vince, got into hot water when coaches discovered they were not eating the healthy meals put on for them at the academy. Instead, they were smuggling in burgers from McDonalds.
These plans for mischief were hardly foolproof, but even coaches appreciate the unquantifiable value in players working (and conspiring) together. Discipline is paramount, especially considering the duty of care element on this overseas trips, but so was having the empathy to know late teens, early-twenty-somethings are going to push their luck. Getting in trouble is par for the course. There's nothing quite like the shared experience of getting a bollocking.
As time moved on, these players grew up and over the last four years - as part of a well-functioning, socially balanced ODI side - relationships have developed maturely. The implementation of a midnight curfew on the squad since the middle of the 2017-18 Ashes has not impinged on the celebration of each other's success. As Chris Woakes said last year after a series win: "We don't really need to go out into town. All our mates are in that hotel team room."
All the respective partners and families get on, which seems trivial but certainly wasn't the case when the players' enclosure was previously regarded by some as too cliquey and intimidating. Now, it's basically a social club full of familiar smiles.
Off-field roles are as concrete as on - take for instance Liam Plunkett being asked to godfather one of David Willey's children. Roy and Buttler have both had kids recently and may look to the dressing room for similar mentors. Indeed, seeing the photo taken after the ODI against Pakistan on the outfield at Southampton of Vince, Roy, Root and Buttler with their wives and kids felt like a tangible shift of a generation moving with time but doing so together.
Trevoy Bayliss deserves credit for spotting and cultivating this atmosphere by emboldening the individuals and, importantly, promoting a brand of cricket that is as enjoyable to play as it is to watch. But the real driver of this dressing room is, of course, the skipper.
Around 12 months ago, the ECB marketing team interviewed Morgan to find out what he believes this ODI side represents. An hour later, they had their answer. With that information, the department went away to work on a few projects, one of which was the viral video released last week with the tagline, "Express Yourself".
"To encourage respect and unity" was Morgan's answer when pressed on what his side represents. From the start, he has been true to his word.
Roy recalls his first visit to the crease in ODIs ending after one ball when he carved a relatively innocuous delivery from Trent Boult straight to point for a duck. He returned to the dressing room expecting a few shaking heads. Instead, Morgan reassured him to keep playing his own way.
When Adil Rashid signed a white ball only contract with Yorkshire at the start of 2018 - to a chorus of abuse from his own fans and questions abound in the media - Morgan rallied around his leg spinner. The news broke while England were touring New Zealand and, at training the next day, the England captain spent a good hour as he sat chatting with Rashid in the open. Not only to reassure him but provide a barrier in case a member of the press made a beeline for comment.
Arguably, Morgan's after-hours work is even more impressive. He is nicknamed by some as "The Baby Whisperer", such is his way with children. He is also a handy babysitter when it comes to his teammates.
Not long after the 2017 fiasco in Bristol, which saw Ben Stokes and Alex Hales suspended, a handful of England players embarked on Buttler's stag do to Amsterdam. With the heightened media scrutiny around the team, the Daily Mail sent a photographer out to the Netherlands to see what dirt they could uncover. The next day, photos of Buttler, Morgan, Steven Finn, Jack Leach and the rest of the party were splashed all over the papers. One of the more risque photos showed them out during the day throwing around a sex toy.
A riled Andrew Strauss, director of men's cricket at the time, messaged Morgan asking if that was the worst photo of the weekend. Morgan, tongue firmly in cheek, replied saying, no, there was much worse - and when those see the light of day, he would be sacked. Strauss left them to it, in part because he trusted Morgan implicitly to look out for those under his care.
This may well end up being the legacy of this side. The England dressing room is no stranger to whispers and toxicity and it is true that teammates do not need to be friends to win together. But it definitely helps, and the way this squad connects lends itself to more sustainable relationships within the dressing room and a battling spirit out in the middle.
A telling example of said spirit within this ODI side came when a number of the squad arrived in Australia after the ill-fated 2017/18 Ashes. England had been soundly beaten, ending the series with Root, their captain, splayed out on a table in the Sydney dressing room with a nasty stomach bug.
Just a few days later, he was back on his feet, full of pluck and raring to go again. England marched to a 4-1 win in the five-match series, with Root averaging 75 from 226 runs.
For an England cricket team already very close, the next two months will only see them grow closer. And the best possible compliment to pay is that, whether they win the World Cup or not, those bonds will not break.
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