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Cricket news - When England's backbone decided not to hang back
On Friday, Eoin Morgan stood up to do his post-match press conference because he was unable to sit down.
A spasm in his back saw him leave the field earlier in the day. His trudge off and up the metal steps to the England dressing room was painful for him and for those watching. One of those two feet on each step type of climbs. A hobbling advert for a new brand of stairlifts aimed at 32-year-olds.
Four days later, after some drugs - prescribed rather than the 21-day-ban kind - and a great deal of work on his back, Morgan's gallop up the stairs at Old Trafford is taken briskly and with a beaming smile. This time everyone else around him are on their feet, including his teammates. Jason Roy slaps one of his bear paws on the captain's back, no fear he might induce another set of involuntary muscle contractions. Then again, having watched the voluntary ones in Morgan's shoulders, forearms and core contribute to a record 17 sixes in a staggering 148 from 71 deliveries, he probably figured the back was in good working order.
First, let's hear it for Morgan's chiropractor. The man who literally couldn't sit down achieved this worldly knock by moving sharply onto the back foot then twisting his body to hit Afghanistan's various spinners over the leg side boundary; pressing forward to hit hard and true down the ground when they strayed full. Have a word with the Queen and knight this miracle worker. Because those hands - my days - what wonders they've worked.
Seriously though - where did this come from? England were 199 for two after 35 overs and then cracked 198 off the final 15. All because Morgan and a once in a lifetime innings. Such was the scale of it and the records broken, it's probably easier to list the records and accolades Morgan did not tick off.
This was not the fastest World Cup hundred, but did register in at number four. It was only England's third-highest individual score in the competition's history. He did not hit six sixes in an over, but the ease at which he hit the first two of the 46th - the first over long-off, the second wide of long on - suggested it was on the cards. It certainly wasn't an unreasonable expectation of a man entering the over with 129 from 66 balls.
But the numbers do not do justice to Morgan's clarity and execution. Think of it like music: you might know that Cole Porter wrote "I've Got You Under My Skin" and Nelson Riddle scored and led the orchestra providing the sound to it's most famous rendition. But until you hear those opening 10-and-a-half seconds before Sinatra leans into the microphone, you really have no idea.
This was an exhibition that, dare it be said, not even Jos Buttler has treated us to. There was one reverse sweep for four that acted as an homage to the Morgan of old. But everything else was pretty standard. He maintained a strong base and at no point did he think about what was behind him. Again, maybe it's best to look at what didn't happen: there was just one boundary behind point and no runs behind square on the leg side, which is a go-to for any left-hander.
Naturally, 60 runs came through square leg and midwicket, but the nine shots straight down the ground that had those in the stands ducking for cover or pinged off the press box were just the simple fundamentals of batting nailed perfectly. It was Stick Cricket coming to life and it was a surprise Morgan was dismissed caught at long off instead of being struck in the head and rag-dolling onto his own stumps.
There's method behind the straighter approach. While Morgan has not been upping his range-hitting practice, he has been aiming more down the ground instead of trying to haul or lift balls over the leg and off-side boundaries, respectively. Even before today's knock, the results were clear to see.
In previous calendar years, his balls per sixes has hovered around the late 30, early 40 mark and, in 2017, it was dead on 30. Yet, even before this assault, he has been clearing the ropes every 20 deliveries in 2019. The extra 17 he picked up now has that figure down to a lowly 13. As a nice little quirk, Morgan currently has as many fours as sixes (41) this year.
Maybe the starkest comparison to squeeze out of the Six Fest is that one man struck just one fewer than the England squad managed in the 2015 World Cup. That he has pinched the record for most in an ODI innings off the likes of Rohit Sharma, AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle, who shared the feat with 16, is "very strange" to the England captain.
In so many ways, Morgan has been the designated driver of this team. Everything he does - cultivating a strong team ethic off the field, captaining them on it - is done to allow others to cut loose. There was once a time when Morgan was all that was flair about England's white ball sides. Now, he's the insurance.
When the top order are enjoying themselves, he hangs back, often letting Jos Buttler come in ahead of him to make best use of the fun on offer. When that same top order goes too hard, he'll front up and look to guide them to safety, as he did in the opening match of the World Cup against South Africa: a measured 57 off 60 abetting an eventual winning total of 311. Even in the field, as Adil Rashid began his spell, Morgan took the burned piece of toast and stuck himself in at short leg.
But here was his chance to indulge. Partly out of necessity: a conservative start meant England, by their own estimations, were set for just 300 when the second wicket fell with 164 on the scoreboard and just 20.1 overs to go. Partly out of jeopardy: Buttler was primed to come in at four but a "fifty-fifty shout" saw the captain stride out.
"After I'd faced a few balls, I had no choice," said Morgan, referencing his start of one off seven balls. "I had to start taking risks because of him [Buttler] coming in next."
On 28 from 25, a slog sweep gone awry looked to be heading straight to Dalwat Zadran out at deep square leg. Somehow, he misjudged every aspect of it and not only let Morgan off the hook but allowed four runs. From then on, he just kept going. And going. And going. To a new personal best. To England registering 397 for six, their highest total amassed in World Cups. And to the top of the 10-team ladder.
Post-match and sat down, Morgan looked almost shellshocked at his own accomplishment. "Never have I ever thought I could play a knock like that," he mused, and perhaps the rest of us and the England dressing room will have to drink if he ever comes out with that line again. Having previously given up on hitting a hundred at a strike rate close to 200, he now has a 57-ball effort. However, he cedes the changing room regards it as a "slow one" given there are two men in there with three-figure scores off 46 (Buttler) and 53 (Moeen Ali).
This though, was Morgan's chance to shine. The man who has given much to English cricket by encouraging his charges to go through their ceilings has smashed his own and, in doing so, set a new, higher standard.
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