The UAE is set to provide the launchpad for the biggest year of Eoin Morgan’s career.
The England limited-overs captain, who will next summer bid to lead the current No1 ranked one-day international side to victory in the ICC World Cup on home soil, will begin 2019 playing his cricket on the decks of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
Morgan has been confirmed as an Icon Player for the brand-new UAE T20x league, backed and supported by the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB), which will run between December 19 and January 11.
The 22-match contest will see five franchise teams battle it out for the inaugural title while big-hitting stars such as West Indian Andre Russell and towering South African David Miller will accompany Morgan out in the middle, with more names to be announced.
Along with AB de Villiers’ involvement as a non-playing ambassador for the tournament – which is set to provide a welcome boost to cricket in the region given playing squads have to consist of four local emerging and junior players, three ICC Associate Member players and three UAE national team players – Morgan is the most well-known cricketer signed up to date.
“It’s a huge 12 months ahead for me,” the 31-year-old said in an exclusive interview with Sport360.
“It’s certainly the most exciting period coming up for me, and the opportunity to play in a home World Cup is massive given where we are as a team,” Morgan added, who along with England coach Trevor Bayliss and a complete change in mindset from the England and Wales Cricket Board, has played a big role in the Three Lions’ white-ball rejuvenation since the 2015 World Cup debacle.
It has been a fine English summer for Morgan and his side, in which England completed a 5-0 ODI series whitewash over Australia and narrowly downed India 2-1 in their three-match contest.
This followed series victories last winter against the Aussies (4-1) and New Zealand (3-2) overseas.
Morgan said: “The last 11 months for us has been really strong and going away in the winter, playing on slow-natured pitches and winning those series away from home, was a huge step in the right direction for our squad.
“This summer, playing Australia and India posed a lot of questions about us and some of our weaknesses but I think as a team we learnt a lot.
“That was epitomised by the first match of the series, when we lost by eight wickets to India at Trent Bridge, as our batsmen were exposed by their left-arm chinaman Kuldeep Yadav.
“From there, we drastically improved (against the spin) in such a short period of time, came back and won 2-1 and that reflects where we are as a group and how much we want to learn and improve.”
Although the full roster of players and team names for the T20x has yet to be revealed, with an auction due to take place in early November, Morgan hinted that some of his England ODI colleagues could join him and sign up for the opening edition of the event.
“I think it will (be an attraction for my England team-mates to come and play),” he said. “Chatting about it in the changing room, there’s a huge level of interest from a lot of our guys and particularly given the location and high-profile nature of the tournament.”
Earlier in the English summer, under Morgan’s captaincy, England were shocked by Scotland in a thrilling ODI. The Scots triumphed by a narrow six-run margin in Edinburgh, with England failing to chase down an improbable 372, falling short on 365.
That served to once again highlight the growth in quality of Associate nations.
And when you consider both Ireland and Afghanistan were granted full Test status by the ICC last year, Morgan, who knows how difficult it can be for the smaller sides to punch above their weight as he started his international career with Ireland, believes the gap is closing between full members and the up-and-coming ones.
“Certainly, I have no doubt that they are getting closer to the big international sides,” he said.
“The recognition Ireland and Afghanistan have received has helped to drag the level up and getting exposure is very important.
“One of the big cries for help that Associates have always had is that they don’t get enough fixtures. But I think if you can get guys (from the UAE) playing in tournaments like the UAE T20x and improving their cricket, it does wonders for the game and their progress over a longer period of time.”
Having forced his way his way into the England ODI side back in mid-2009 after a string of excellent showings for Ireland, Dublin-born Morgan benefitted from television exposure and playing against the best regularly.
And he feels the upcoming T20x – which is reportedly set to rival Australia’s Big Bash League in the financial stakes thanks to big-money backing – can help local talent thrive.
“I think it definitely does act as a shop window for UAE players and having gone through this experience myself with Ireland as a smaller nation, not only can you lack opportunity sometimes but also the limelight as well.
“If you take Afghanistan at the moment, the exposure some of their young spinners have had playing in tournaments like the IPL, is a huge learning curve and opportunity for them.
“I’m extremely looking forward to the tournament and helping the younger players, to be honest, they keep me on my toes and it makes you feel old at times.”
The left-hander added: “Hopefully I can share my experiences (and my journey) from playing in the World Cup with Ireland in 2007 and then playing in the IPL over the years, sharing a changing room with the likes Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and Jacques Kallis. I was absolutely blown away to sit and learn with these guys.
“So, to give back in a similar way and play my role (in helping the youngsters) is absolutely huge to help the Associate nations.”
Morgan is no stranger to the UAE having previously played eight ODIs in the the country, averaging 36.67, while he captained Kerala Kings to success in the first-ever T10 Cricket League in the UAE last December.
He struck 63 in the final to help secure a eight-wicket triumph and is very much aware of the appetite for cricket in the Middle East, underpinned by a large subcontinent population living and working in the region.
“I thought the T10 tournament would go well but I didn’t envisage sold-out crowds for full days, it was absolutely rammed and thousands of people had to be turned away in Sharjah who couldn’t get tickets,” he admitted.
“The exciting thing about the UAE T20x is its potential being played over the holiday period and playing in the UAE time zone is a huge advantage for viewers of cricket in the subcontinent.
“You can create a tournament with high-quality cricket and big-name players, as well as forging a strong product and authentic brand.”
Moeen Ali is relishing his preferred role back in England‘s Test side and hopes he has made a “fresh start” to his career.
On the all-rounder’s return after a miserable Ashes winter, and five subsequent months out of the team, only stoic India number three Cheteshwar Pujara (132 not out) was able to stop him running through the tourists on day two at the Ageas Bowl.
Moeen (5-63) was also back at the venue where he took six second-innings wickets on his last Test visit four years ago, in victory over these same opponents.
This time, as England try to stave off India’s mid-series fightback in this fourth Test, Pujara’s skilled determination gave India a marginal edge with 273 all out in reply to 246 – before the hosts closed on six for none.
Moeen, who made 40 from number seven on day one, said: “The role in the side now is my best role – mainly as a batter, then coming on as a second spinner gives me a lot more confidence and freedom, and I actually end up playing better. I’m trying to have a fresh start.”
If so, at the age of 31, it coincides with his 51st Test, having completed his half-century before being dropped against New Zealand in Christchurch.
Reflecting on that, he added: “It’s believing you’re not a bad player after one bad winter. Many players have gone through that, and for me it was just moving on, making you a better player, a stronger character. These things can happen to anybody.
“I shrugged it off, cleared my mind to try to get better, and that’s exactly what I feel I have been doing.”
A double-century and six wickets for Worcestershire against Yorkshire last week were timely factors.
“I’ve loved being back at Worcester,” he said. “It’s always nice to get a call-up when you’re in decent nick … you have that confidence coming into the game, and it’s doing what county cricket should be doing.”
His previous success at Southampton put a spring in his step too. “The last time I was here just gave me a bit of confidence for today,” he said.
“I was bowling the same end, and it brings back those memories, it’s always nice to have that in the back of your mind. The spin was nice, and it did last time as well. After my first over today, I thought I was going to be in the game throughout this Test match.”
Ben Stokes trapped Ajinkya Rahane lbw in the 47th over for 11. The batsman decided to review the decision and that’s when controversy erupted.
The third umpire first checked for a no-ball and it was all the more criticial as Stokes had been bowling big no-balls throughout Friday. In the TV replays, Stokes’ front foot was once again found to have finished over the line.
However, the third umpire Joel Wilson called it a fair delivery as a part of Stokes’ raised heel was deemed to be behind the crease at the point of delivery. The follow-up ball-tracking showed Rahane was out lbw.
Indian cricket fans took to social media to express their anguish as close up images of Stokes’ full delivery stride showed Stokes’ front foot to be over the line at the time of release.
A ball is deemed to be a fair delivery if a part of the bowlers’ foot is seen to be behind to crease even if the boot is raised in the delivery stride.
WICKET! Stokes traps Rahane lbw for 11 - after nearly over-stepping.— Sky Sports Cricket (@SkyCricket) August 31, 2018
"It was mighty close," says Nasser Hussain, of that front foot call.
India 161-4 trail by 85 runs. Watch the fourth #EngvInd Test on Sky Sports Cricket & Main Event or follow here: https://t.co/0YEKSzkL1J pic.twitter.com/AllIE1nw0s