It was a big year, 2009, in the career of Eoin Morgan. In May, he scored a brilliant 161 off 136 balls for Middlesex against Kent to confirm his position as one of the most exciting young batsmen in the game and made his England debut in an ODI against West Indies at the age of 22. In June, he played his first Twenty20 international, scoring six off eight balls against the Netherlands at Lord’s. In July, he played his final game for Finchley, scoring 22 off 48 balls against Hampstead in the Middlesex County Cricket League before being dismissed off the bowling of a 40-year-old Paul Weekes.
“I remember getting him out. I made it a must if any Middlesex player played against me I tried to dominate that particular day,” says Weekes, a former Middlesex bowler and friend of Morgan’s from their time playing together at county level, who was captaining Hampstead that day.
“He hit the ball before for six and then he just pushed at a wide one and was caught at slip. It always pulls my game up when I come up against an international player. Some guys might be in awe of a player like that – I’ve seen it many times against Mark Ramprakash [once of England and Middlesex, who now regularly turns out for Stanmore at the age of 50] – everyone freezes. It’s not every day you get an international batsman playing on the same ground as you.”
It is one of the glorious curiosities of English cricket that so many of the greatest names in the world game have come through comparatively minor club sides. Many no longer have the budget for an overseas professional but to pluck just a few examples from the past, Steve Smith has played for Grappenhall and Tim Paine, his successor as Australia captain, for Banbury. Allan Border turned out for Downend in Gloucestershire and East Lancashire in Blackburn, while Shane Warne’s time at Accrington was limited to a single season because the club did not think he was good enough to deserve another.
Viv Richards, having scored 6,472 of his 8,540 Test runs and at the time officially ranked the world’s fourth-best batsman, spent the summer of 1987 at Rishton – who have also enticed Jason Gillespie and Allan Donald – while Michael Clarke turned out for Ramsbottom in 2002. But it is not only foreign players, short of something to do in their domestic winters, who turn out for tiny teams.
The ECB is currently midway through a World Cup trophy tour that is taking members of this summer’s victorious squad back to their first senior clubs, silverware in hand. In order to avoid potential scenes of mass hysteria they are unwilling to disclose dates and locations of visits but Jofra Archer has dropped in on Horsham and Jos Buttler returned to Cheddar. Last Thursday evening, a crowd of children and parents gathered in a sporadically wind-shaken marquee in Finchley to celebrate the return of Morgan, who, after moving from Ireland, started down his path to glory from the decidedly unglamorous environs of Dudley Road, N3.
Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, says the tour is designed “to use the World Cup trophy to inspire kids across the country that wanted to pick up a bat and ball after watching the dramatic final at Lord’s”.
Watching dozens of children, hands in the air, desperate to quiz Morgan on everything from the drama of the final to the size of his first bat suggested they may well be successful in that endeavour but the tour is also a reminder that cricket remains an unusually democratic sport, with the distance between top and bottom surprisingly small.
It is hard to paint cricket as the people’s pastime. According to Sport England’s most recent Active People Survey, which collated data on the year to September 2016, around 1,844,900 adults play football every week in England. That made it the nation’s fourth most-practised sport behind swimming, cycling and whatever endeavours can together be classed as athletics – running places, jumping over stuff, throwing unusually heavy frisbees, flipping over high things with the aid of a bendy stick, making an unusually strenuous effort to catch a bus, that kind of thing. In essence, the only sports more popular in England than football are ones you can do by yourself.
By needing lots of people, a vaguely flat field, decent weather and healthy quantities of bats, balls, pads and most of all patience, cricket inevitably trailed behind (though it was nevertheless surprising that sports that require access to actual living horses were nearly twice as popular). Only 158,500 adults played the sport regularly, suggesting it is of interest only to an entitled few, the flannelled elite.
But there is somehow a kinship to cricket that football cannot match. Particularly since the Elite Player Performance Plan was introduced in 2012, English football has focused on removing promising young players from ordinary clubs and cosseting them in a diminishing number of super academies. Of the 23 members of England’s 2018 World Cup squad all but three were in the academies of Premier League or Championship clubs by the time they were 15, most having been there by the age of 10 (not counting Eric Dier, who was picked up by the Portuguese giants Sporting as an eight year old). By the time they reach adulthood most top-level footballers know nothing of life in volunteer-run, community clubs and the clubs nothing of them. By contrast, the trophy tour demonstrates that cricket still cherishes links between the great and the merely good and hopefully will lead to a fresh commitment to encourage them.
“It’s happening less and less with first-class players. I think they need to play more in the club set-up when they can,” Weekes says. “If you’re looking at the next generation, youngsters like to be next to their heroes.
“Hampstead has a big colts section and to know that Morgan was coming down, when he’d just got into the England side – or Ramprakash, or Nick Compton when he used to play for Richmond – was massive for them. For the guys in the team, on the day we’re all on the same park and the same level. It’s really important county and international players play at least one game for their club side each summer, out on the ground where the players and colts can see you. It’s becoming slightly overlooked, which is a bit of a shame. After all, we don’t want to end up like football, do we?”