Eoin Morgan’s 34th birthday might be the dullest and most memorable, spent in a bio-secure bubble with colleagues who became friends rather than friends and family.
Thursday’s festivities were about as sterile as the surroundings at Emirates Old Trafford. A card signed by all in the morning was followed by FaceTime with loved ones. Proper celebrations, Morgan says, will have to wait for after Wednesday given events have restricted similar for a number of players. His vice-captain Jos Buttler, for instance, spent his 30th on Friday at home, leaving the T20 bubble to be with his family before meeting back up in Manchester. As a collective, many a proper shindig has been postponed.
Not for much longer, though. There is just one more series to go, three ODIs against Australia, before England’s international summer comes to an end, with the final match on Wednesday. But for the endeavour of staff and cash at the England and Wales Cricket Board, and willingness of opposition to tour a country with such a high infection rate and death toll, it might not have happened at all. As such, there is gratitude from all parts.
Exhaustion, too. The physical toll of playing these games back-to-back has been downplayed for PR reasons, but it is the mental strain that has surprised all participants, particularly opening your hotel curtains to the view of the arena that hosted your failures the night before. Considering this is a sport that players are encouraged to separate their “on” and “off” time, this summer has been particularly taxing on the mind. And it is telling that Morgan and others have no qualms of going to the Indian Premier League in the UAE despite similarly strict off-field protocol given the distance between venues and hotels.
Nevertheless, it is nearly done with arguably the least important series of the lot. Test cricket remains the pinnacle over here and the Twenty20s against Pakistan and Australia has shuffled the deck ahead of 2021’s T20 World Cup in India.
There are three more years until the next 50-over one, also in India, by which point we may well have worn out our digital copies of 2019’s final. And it is hard not to look at the first match in Manchester on Friday as the first meeting of these two in this format since England’s eight-wicket demolition of Australia in the semi-final. In fact, the home squad boasts 11 of last summer’s 15 winners with nine expected to make the final XI.
Not that these matches are without context given they form part of the 2020/22 ICC Cricket World Cup Super League which serves as part of the qualification process for 2023. But Covid-19 will continue to impact the 13 teams involved to such an extend that the parameters will have to be changed at some point. A raft of postponements has meant Ireland’s 2-1 defeat to England earlier this summer were the first matches of this league to take place.
Morgan, though, is not one to let a match pass him or his charges by. From credibility to camaraderie, the white ball set-up is a club many players want to be a part of, and with only so many spots to be determined around a consistent core, there are opportunities for the likes of Sam Curran, Tom Banton, Sam Billings and Dawid Malan – a late call-up – to state their respective cases. Especially with the majority of the group fresh from a 2-1 victory in the T20 series against the same opposition in which there were notable kinks to be ironed out. And everything is up for grabs.
“I think everybody is replaceable,” said Morgan. “One of the things we forget is a huge benefit of the same group of 17 for an extended period of time, they spend a lot of time together, lots of experiences good or bad and along that journey, you naturally build relationships as different leaders evolve.”
“As a group there are huge improvements to be made. Our fielding stood out as being second rate to Australia and I think more so the different challenges of playing three-match ODI series poses.
“I think the expectation outside of our group is higher than it has ever been and it should be – we’ve got an incredibly talented group of guys who have proved they are good players and collectively we’re a hard team to beat. I’d rather go in with a weight of expectation than none at all. We’ve grown to be comfortable with that expectation over the last few years.”
A key aspect in all three matches will be centralised pitches which are used for broadcasted fixtures and, by now, will be weary. These will not be surfaces Morgan is particularly fond of but, as he points out, will be a notch toward what they will have to deal with in India when defending their crown.
Thus, the situation dictates these won’t be walkthroughs, especially as Aaron Finch’s side look to make amends for their missteps in the last week. We are into the home stretch of a challenging summer and the players, who have given so much already, will be leaving it all out there.
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