On captaincy and Eoin Morgan

We talk about captaincy in cricket all the time, despite the fact it's virtually impossible to

This is a piece I wrote for ESPNcricinfo last week.

The Kolkata Knight Riders fans are on a journey. The season isn't going their way and they want a change at the top. The press picks up on it. "Captaincy questioned by fans," the first headlines announce. A few days later, another loss and this time "Furious KKR fans want" to replace the captain. A week or two later it's "angry KKR fans" who want a new leader. By now it's so much of a story that Kapil Dev is asked to comment on it. Brad Hogg is defending the embattled captain of his former team as well.

Right now you're probably thinking about and the first half of KKR's season earlier this year. The only thing then that seemed to stop Morgan from losing his job was the Covid-19 outbreak that postponed the season.

But I didn't write those headlines out in full earlier.

"Angry KKR Fans Want Eoin Morgan To Replace Dinesh Karthik As Captain" and "Furious KKR fans Want Eoin Morgan To Replace Dinesh Karthik As Captain After Sharjah Defeat".

They were actually from last season.

Less than 12 months ago KKR fans took to social media to suggest that then captain Dinesh Karthik should be sacked and replaced by Morgan. Halfway through the next tournament - not even a full year later - fans have started asking for Morgan to be fired.

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Morgan's leadership is elevated in England because he brought them something they had almost given up on. This Dublin middle-order player turned up and took England to a World Cup victory.

They had been a laughing stock pretty much since the world abandoned the red ball for the white. In 2015 when Morgan took over, England were not a limited-overs side, they were just limited. They stumbled around the world looking for par totals, and using their overused Test seamers in the hope the magic would work.

It didn't.

Then a failed Test player who loved the IPL came along and they only went and won their first 50-overs World Cup. So when Nick Hoult and Steve James wrote their book on England's win, and the rise that preceded it, it was of course called /Morgan's Men: The Inside Story of England's Rise from Cricket World Cup Humiliation to Glory/.

Obviously others helped. Andrew Strauss played a big part in changing the planning and focus around the format, and by allowing English players to be at the IPL. Trevor Bayliss was a renowned white-ball coach who changed the mindset of how they played. And Nathan Leamon, along with the ECB analyst system, was being heard more and was given more power.

But in cricket we have given the captain extraordinary rights. A similar position in another sport is the American football quarterback, although they get constant real-time instructions from their coach. A captain is out there alone, making decisions, and when their team wins, we heap them with incredible praise. So they were Morgan's men and he was given a CBE. This year, by resting players with the T20 World Cup in mind, the ECB prioritised Morgan's needs over Joe Root's, even as England were playing for a chance to make the World Test Championship final.

It was clear to any English fan who had seen generations of boring middle overs and death spells gone wrong that Morgan was a genius.

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The first half of the 2021 season, Kolkata were not winning, and the common refrain from fans on social media was that Morgan wasn't a good tactician. They complained he was a laptop captain, that he wasn't reacting to the game, had made a load of errors, and that his very selection was an issue. Even if any of that is true, Kolkata's biggest problems were to do with their batting and bowling.

Let's start with the batting. There is plenty of talent there. The top three of Shubman Gill, Rahul Tripathi and Nitish Rana are solid, meaning KKR can stack their middle order with overseas players. When they had Pat Cummins, they had some batting down to eight. Yet that line-up averaged 21.76 runs per wicket in their seven games before the Covid break this season. For comparison, Delhi Capitals averaged 40.15 and Chennai Super Kings 37.79. And that is Kolkata's strength.

Their bowling was worse. They basically have no new-ball seamer they trust. So they have been trying to cover it by using Varun Chakravarthy bowling a couple of overs, with Shakib Al Hasan, Harbhajan Singh, Sunil Narine and even Rana joining him in the powerplay. After ten games, those spinners had bowled 45% of KKR's powerplay overs. Their spinners are economical upfront, but they don't take wickets. And neither have their seamers. As a team they have taken 11 wickets in the powerplay this season.

Shivam Mavi looks like he could be suited to bowling upfront, but so far he has struggled for wickets and gone at more than eight an over. Because Cummins is brilliant, people assume he can do it all, but in T20 he gets better the older the ball is. And Prasidh Krishna has struggled, managing four wickets in 324 balls across the powerplay in his career. He took Virat Kohli out the other night but then delivered back-to-back no-balls.

The annoying thing for Kolkata is that they have had Lockie Ferguson in their squad, but couldn't get him in the side because their batting was so bad. So they kept picking Cummins - who had outscored Morgan before the season's break - and Narine, who still only has 31 runs from six innings - which meant Ferguson or Tim Southee couldn't get a game.

There were other options. One was making Andre Russell bowl his full quota, which is risky. But it would allow them to drop Cummins, though doing that to a high-paid player is often an issue when it comes to team dynamics. The other was to drop Morgan. If he wasn't captain, they probably would have done.

They were sort of anchored to these two players for the first half of the season.

Morgan's captaincy was not a problem in terms of deciding who to bring on when and what to do at the toss. Like any captain, he'll get some right or wrong, and you'd expect an experienced leader to be a plus overall. This was about team design, and the fact that his spot - because he was captain - was part of the issue.

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Morgan won a World Cup and so people will refer to him as a great captain. Does that make it so?

Put it another way: was Steve Waugh a better captain than Heath Streak? If Streak had been given Australia to lead, and Waugh Zimbabwe, I assume we'd see Streak's name on the greatest captains list more than Waugh's.

There is no proper way to work out how good a captain is outside of a win-loss record, and how much of a win is really down to leadership. Captains are 9% of a cricket team, but they make a lot of decisions, and more per ball in T20 than in any other format.

More often than not, they have to use their main five bowlers, maybe juggle six. Conditions often dictate how that is done, and most bowlers have set roles in the team already. The order they are used in obviously has a big say, not only in terms of match-ups but because different bowlers struggle in different phases of the game. We have algorithms that can tell us the optimal bowling strategy for each over, but even those can't tell us about dew, a loss of confidence, or the wind.

Setting fields is another big part, although you can't discount how often captains follow the ball or just let bowlers choose the field. Then there's all the stuff we can't ever know, such as how backing players changed them, and how not doing so also changed them.

There are very few terrible captains. You'll see newer leaders struggle with over rates, and with remembering bowling plans. But most professional captains are competent at the least. It's just that it's hard to judge the good from the bad, outside of winning and losing.

Think about it this way: the players you take out on the field probably make up about 90% of your chances of winning. On the remaining 10%, you have the impact of captaincy, weather, the toss, and pitch conditions. It would be silly to say captaincy doesn't matter, but when you factor in all the things that /do/ in cricket, it shows how little a captain can affect a match.

We don't actually have great metrics for tracking bowling changes or for keeping records of fielding changes and how they affect each game. So almost every judgement we make on captaincy is anecdotal. We remember poor decisions in losses and excellent decisions in wins. But we all know deep down that a bad captain with a great team will beat a great captain with a bad team. We just forget about that when our team has lost three on the trot.

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The first was the doomed last over of the 2016 T20 World Cup final. Stokes bowled a poor first ball and then missed his length on three consecutive yorkers, and Carlos Brathwaite played four extraordinary shots.

England started that game horribly. Morgan was in very early and scratched around before Samuel Badree confused him with a wrong'un. Joe Root, Jos Buttler and David Willey saved them and they ended up with 155.

Morgan had Root bowl the second over, which was probably a plan for Chris Gayle - and it worked. But Root also took out Johnson Charles. Root had opened the bowling for England once before but for Yorkshire he was a near specialist. In the 30 games in which he had bowled for them, he opened the bowling in 14 (and they were almost all before 2016). England continued to be on top for the rest of the innings.

There's nothing remarkable about this. Had Root bowled, taken no wickets, and the over gone for seven runs, it would have been just as good or bad a call, only that we would have forgotten it.

England had four seamers, Liam Plunkett, Willey, Stokes, and Chris Jordan. Death specialist Jordan was always going to get two overs at the pointy end. Plunkett was a middle-overs bowler, so his allocation was done. That meant that England had to get by with Willey and Stokes taking up the slack at the death. Willey got the 18th, Jordan bowled the 17th and 19th, to keep England ahead of the rate, and West Indies had a near-impossible 19 runs to get from the final over.

Using Jordan to push that asking rate up in the 19th was a good move, and it worked. It's good captaincy, but also something that had been fairly common in the game for some time. It allowed the batting allrounder the easier over, when the odds were in his favour.

Coming into this game, Stokes had bowled 199 balls in the last four overs of an innings in T20s. In those he had a bowling average of 14.66 and an economy rate of 7.95. It's not a lot of balls, but he wasn't new. Nearly a fifth of those balls were for England, and his economy there was 7.12. His death overs were messy, but his inability to land the ball exactly where he wanted at a good pace seemed to work for him, compared to other bowlers who had very set plans. It didn't work here, and in a game in which Morgan captained well, he lost.

You wouldn't say Morgan led poorly in the 2019 World Cup final. New Zealand lost regular wickets, Morgan protected the shorter boundaries, and New Zealand's 241 seemed around par (or exactly par in this case). For a batting side like England, this was an excellent result despite it not being the kind of surface they had built their ODI record on. But they didn't bat well, Morgan failed again, and they were saved by Stokes off the face of his bat - as well as, eventually, the back of it. Morgan received the CBE for winning this World Cup, but he was no better or worse in this final than in the one he lost. The difference was how good Stokes was.

But Morgan's worth isn't in those two games or the Champions Trophy semi-final they lost to Pakistan. It's that England, in between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, dominated white-ball cricket. They won nearly two-thirds of their ODIs in this period.

Morgan's skills seem to help build a system and game plan for a team to do well in. But when you're made captain halfway through one season, and then don't have a mega auction, how can you do that? At the 2015 World Cup, England weren't using Jonny Bairstow, Adil Rashid, Jason Roy or even Stokes. Neither did Morgan have them on the bench for KKR.

Morgan won't be around in four years for KKR. Over time, his strengths might come out, but it's difficult to change within a league that is designed with a sense of equality in mind ,with salary caps and auctions. Since winning the title in 2014, KKR have won 50% of their games. They haven't had many losing seasons, they have just had a mediocre record. And sometimes that's harder to fix.

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Is Morgan a top-tier T20 batter - good enough to be among the top 12-14 overseas batters considered for a spot in an IPL team? His international numbers certainly suggest that: a 28.7 average with a 138 strike rate.

But he has never been that player in the IPL. Starting from 2010, he has averaged 23.37 and struck at 123.89. Those numbers don't sound great, but he bats at four and five, where batters generally have depressed stats. The record of those positions combined in the IPL (since 2010) is an average of 27.8 and a strike rate of 129. Meaning Morgan has been below par, though he has played eight seasons and 76 games as an overseas player.

When you look at him season by season, he has had one season where he averaged over 30 and one where he scored at a strike rate of over 130. They happen to be the same season: 2020. Kolkata gave him the captaincy the only time he was batting above average in the IPL. Now he has regressed back to normal, which causes an enormous problem.

A few overseas players are automatic selections in the IPL, and those can be safe picks as captains. But if you're not an automatic pick, like Rashid Khan or AB de Villiers, there can be a lot of changing of overseas players. Form, injuries, and also the availability of local players affect which overseas players get a game. You need to be pretty certain your overseas player will be needed in every game. And even then that can go wrong. This season we have seen David Warner lose his spot and leadership at Sunrisers. Warner isn't even that risky a choice as captain; he's a true IPL great, whereas Morgan is a replacement-level talent, and those rarely play all the way through a year unless there's no other option.

The reason it's tricky isn't just form, it's how the team comes together.

Russell is an automatic pick, but around him, Kolkata were always going to chop and change. Unless their internationals caught fire, Ferguson and Cummins could have been interchanged, Narine and Shakib already have been, and similarly Morgan could be replaced by Ben Cutting or Shakib. Often the overseas players are left out more on the basis of how the domestic players are going. So you need that flexibility.

If Morgan was just an overseas player in the first half of this season, when his form dipped, they could have tried Venkatesh Iyer, allowing them to bring in Ferguson and Cummins. Rana would have dropped down to Morgan's spot (at four or five), where his record is an average of 32.38 and strike rate of 132. No one knew Iyer would have this kind of instant impact, but that looks like a better team even if Iyer fails.

Without Cummins the trick has been to still have five bowlers while having Iyer and Morgan in.

They have gone with Russell bowling his full quota, with no real back-up, other than some occasional fingerspin from Rana. That means they lose a front-line bowler, and Russell has to bowl at the death. There he has a lot of wickets but goes at over two runs a ball. But this also allows them an extra batter, and luckily for them, that is Iyer, and so suddenly everything is coming up purple.

Still, the bowling is thin, and the best option would be for Russell to have real cover with another allrounder, like Cutting or Shakib, both of whom can bat at five or six if needed. And that player would need to come in for Morgan.

KKR have won some games now, but there's risk in their approach. All of which comes down to the fact that the player they won't replace is Morgan, a specialist batter who this year has averaged 11.88 with a strike rate of 101.

So let's look at the reasons Morgan became Kolkata captain. He is incredibly well respected as a leader, even when not captain. That is one reason he has had such a long career in the IPL, though he has never clicked with the bat. They had a crisis of leadership last year, and they had an international captain right there. He was making runs - more than in his previous three seasons - with an average of 42 and a strike rate of 138. And there is the emotional connection; not only is one of his best friends the coach, but Morgan has been a long-time KKR player.

His captaincy feels like a combination of crisis, batting form and personal connections. That basically tells you that even before he became captain there were issues there. His captaincy - even if it works - is part of a larger problem that even him finding a bit of form with the bat probably won't fix.

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Kolkata have looked much better since the resumption. Before, they were a dumpster waiting for a lit match; since, it's been three from four, and they went within a ball of winning all of them.

All four of their matches were different. In the win over RCB, Prasidh took one of his few powerplay wickets and Ferguson took another. Russell took wickets in the middle, without Cummins there bowling those overs, and Chakravarthy also dominated in that phase. They didn't have to worry about death bowling because of all their wickets, and their batters were chasing a comically low total.

In the win over Mumbai Indians, they couldn't take a wicket in the powerplay. The Prasidh gamble didn't work. Russell went for runs again, but the other three bowlers were so good they kept the total middling. And for the second straight game Iyer got them off to a flier. The rest of the batting backed them up.

In the third game, versus CSK, it was the batting, as a unit, that got them just around enough. But Prasidh went for runs. Russell did too, before he got injured, and Morgan had to assemble a death line-up on the fly, ending with Iyer bowling his first IPL over and Narine almost defending four runs in the last over.

When they took on Capitals, they didn't have Russell, which meant their batting was weaker, and then Ferguson got injured mid-match. Iyer stepped up with the ball and Rana played a very good knock at four, and Kolkata won.

Morgan batted in three of the matches. His top score in those was eight.

Cummins forced their hand with selection, and Iyer is a gift that no one could believe would have been this useful. He seems to have given them more batting and bowling. They will continue to gamble on Russell's overs because of Iyer. Outside of Morgan's batting form, everything looks great.

They are winning now. So is Morgan a better captain now than before? Did he go off and take magic leadership pills? What obviously helped a broken team was the time afforded them to assess how they might mend. Their last three games are against teams below them on the table, so they could even finish third. But chances are they are still going to end up finishing somewhere between fourth and sixth. And where they end up will dictate the fans' anger, but, like before, it'll probably not have a whole lot to do with Morgan's ability to captain.