Moeen Ali finally stepping into the spotlight with solid contributions for England
It was in 2014 on a short limited-overs tour of the West Indies that Moeen Ali first appeared for England. At the time a surprise inclusion, Moeen ended the three-match series with a half-century in the final game as England came from behind to win the series.
Tipped to represent his country a while before his maiden selection, the Worcestershire middle-order batsman had accumulated 1,375 runs at 62.50 besides announcing his worth with the ball with 28 wickets – off-spinners which took a while to gain the attention and the respect of the world – just the previous year.
Elegance while driving and authority while pulling defined Moeen’s batting, while such was his control and command with the ball that he drew comparisons with England’s then frontline spinner Graeme Swann even before making it to the England team.
Moeen was not only named in the touring party for the West Indies series but also chosen for the World T20; and when the home summer began, he was on the verge of making his Test debut, with Kevin Pietersen’s unpredictable axing and Jonathan Trott’s voluntary absence creating vacancies in the England middle-order.
At Headingley, in only his second Test and with the hosts dying to save the match against Sri Lanka, Moeen ensured the visitors had a tough time wrapping things up with a gritty unbeaten 108 on the final day, though his efforts went in vain. Moeen was a figure of composure amidst his colleagues who panicked; he was an exemplary example in front of the more established Alastair Cook and Ian Bell, who were both bowled by the pace of Dhammika Prasad.
In the subsequent assignment against India, when his batting lost some of its sheen, he contributed with the ball. History has it that on his teammate Bell’s advice to bowl quicker, and a fortunate interaction with former off-spinner-turned-umpire Kumar Dharmasena, who taught him to gain pace without sacrificing on flight, Moeen gradually transitioned from accurate to threatening, baffling India with 19 wickets in the series, including a career-best 6/67.
As 2014 came to a close, Moeen bashed the then third-fastest ODI century for England and returned from an otherwise dismal World Cup in early 2015 with another rapid century against Scotland – both as an opener.
His reputation as a fearsome hitter was long known, ever since he had smacked a 56-ball hundred in an Under-19 Test against Sri Lanka. Moreover, while still only 14, he had smoked 195* in a T20 game for Moseley Ashfield U-15.
Always a top order batsman in domestic cricket, Moeen was renowned for his fearless approach which reaped rich rewards on most occasions. However, he was sent back to county cricket to sharpen his red-ball skills while England hosted New Zealand in a one-day series in 2015, which cost Moeen his opening slot.
And then came the tough times. Installed into the side primarily for his batting, Moeen only sporadically contributed with the willow as England aimed at utilising him as a spin-bowling all-rounder. There was the odd half-century in the company of the tail after being demoted to number eight, a position from which he had little option but to attack from the outset.
An expected inconsistency had crept into Moeen’s batting, and tagged as an under-rated and harmless off-spinner on the international stage, he soon began to be regarded as a bits-and-pieces cricketer in the England ranks.
The whole of 2015 passed with Moeen rarely chipping in with vital contributions. From a lower order dasher, he suddenly found himself opening the batting in the company of Cook while facing Pakistan in the UAE, but that failed to pay dividends and England continued to jostle in search of a quality partner for Cook post the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012.
But the new year saw the most polished innings yet from Moeen. At Chester-le-street against Sri Lanka, he timed the ball to perfection and in the process of executing cuts, drives, and punches perfectly, compiled his highest Test score of 155*. Moeen oozed confidence throughout the innings as is testified by the fact that he chose to drive uppishly over mid-off to reach his second Test century and smoothly deposited a six over mid-wicket to breach the 150-run barrier.
However, recklessness returned and things took a turn for the worse. During the Lord’s Test against Pakistan, when England had to survive a venomous Yasir Shah on a wearing fourth-day track, Moeen needlessly danced down to a leg-spinning delivery which pitched on a rough and turned cruelly to dismantle his stumps.England lost by 75 runs and he later confessed to having felt “embarrassed” on attempting that heave.
With England 0-1 down, there was talk of an under-performing Moeen being replaced by Adil Rashid. It was all but confirmed that his place in the side would be lost until Cook named an eleven comprising Moeen, with the team management showing faith in the spin-bowling all-rounder.
Though Moeen had virtually nothing to do with the bat, he claimed five wickets in a massive win at Old Trafford which helped England level the series. In the next match at Edgbaston, batting at seven – his favourite position till date – he slammed twin half-centuries, the second of which was a quick, undefeated 86, thus enabling England to come from behind and go 2-1 up.
Two wickets in the second innings meant he was the Man of the Match. But he was not done. At The Oval, a few days later, came his third Test hundred of the year, although England lost again.
More was due. In Asia during the winter, Moeen was promoted to bat at five in Bangladesh. He also bowled with impressive discipline to end the series with 11 scalps at 22.91, including a memorable yet wasted 5/57 in Dhaka, where he found prodigious turn and bounce.
England’s next destination was potentially the most challenging, especially for a man on his first visit there. But Moeen seemed unperturbed by the fussof encountering sharply turning surfaces and hit two centuries. Seldom does one achieve as much during a Test series in India. The southpaw batted with purpose and displayed remarkable intent whilst patiently finding out ways to avoid the danger of Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. On a tour where he batted at three different positions – five, four and three – he came back a gratified man with an average of 42.33.
Selfless as always, Moeen accepted all the responsibilities that came his waydespite being constantly shuffled across the batting order. When commanded to bat with the tailenders, he did not argue despite his inclination to bat higher; when asked to move up the order and repeatedly switch positions, Moeen never complained.
A team man, he thanked the management following his third Test hundred at The Oval for sticking with him despite the Lord’s debacle. “I was sick and tired of not scoring many runs for England. It had been a bit embarrassing. I’ve got to thank the selectors and Alastair Cook. I would not have picked myself at one stage,” he had said after posting 108. And what a changed man Moeen is, post that learning experience.
He talks less and unlike most modern cricketers, is untattooed to boast of youth and passion; and unlike most others, Moeen is never over-driven by the eclipsing of milestones, the latest of which has added another feather to his cap. In fewer Tests than Ian Botham, Garry Sobers, Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee and Imran Khan, Moeen accomplished the enviable feat of 2,000 runs and 100 wickets, both coming against South Africa at Lord’s. Again demoted to seven – new captain Joe Root wanted him there while describing his spin-bowling as an “add on” – Moeen carted the bowlers around emphatically with majestic shots in a compelling innings of 87. He enjoyed pace on the ball and treated the fast bowlers with little respect on a fine batting track.
The next afternoon and the morning after that, Moeen extracted appreciable spin and bounce to nip out the wickets of dangerman Hashim Amla and a set Dean Elgar. After ending Day 2 with two wickets, he again credited his captain for allowing him the leeway to attack while not getting flustered with the leakage of runs.Two days later, as the Lord’s track misbehaved with menacingly variable bounce, Moeen entered the scene and took full advantage of the surface to dismantle South Africa’s line-up with a career-best 6/53. A combination of skillful bowling – like luring Elgar with flight and pushing Theunis de Bruyn on the back foot with a well-disguised good length ball – and good fortune – like Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma bottom-edging a cut and a heave, respectively – played their parts in Moeen collecting a maiden ten-for in a Test.
No England cricketer since Botham in 1980 boasted of a half-century and ten wickets in a single Test, and deservingly, Moeen was honoured with the Man of the Match award for fashioning a 211-run win and lifting England 1-0 up with three to play.
It will of no amazement if Moeen, the batsman, who has batted at all positions until number nine, flourishes and grows rapidly with time; if Moeen, the bowler, learns a trick or two (he already knows the doosra) to flummox top class batsmen. England possess a gifted cricketer who, in three years of international cricket, has made a name for himself by silently piling up runs and wickets for his country; they have a very able all-rounder who can go miles if persisted with.