The rise and rise of Moeen Ali
There couldn’t have been a better finish to the third Test between England and South Africa at the Oval unless you are a Proteas' fan, of course. Moeen Ali claimed three wickets in three balls to seal England’s imposing victory over the visitors who were on the back foot since the first day.
Ali’s hat-trick was the first at the Oval in 100 Tests and it was also the first instance of an England bowler claiming a hat-trick in a home Test. These achievements stamp the importance of Ali in this England team which looks well balanced and effective at playing on any surface in the world.
The off-spinner with his four wicket haul in the second innings of the Oval Test has become the leading wicket taker in this Test series with 18 scalps to his name. His bowling played a vital hand in both of England’s victories in the series. In the first Test, he claimed 10 wickets and in the third, his hat-trick brought curtains on South Africa’s second innings.
It is interesting to note that Ali started his career as a batsman who could bowl part-time off spin. But three years after his debut, he has become England’s most lethal spinner. And importantly his bowling has improved without affecting his batting. He still remains an essential cog in England’s middle order and on numerous occasions has played significant knocks to help the Three Lions post or chase stiff totals.
Spectacular start to the career
The left-hand batsman made his Test debut against Sri Lanka in 2014. In his second Test, he scored an unbeaten hundred after coming to bat at number seven. England lost that Test but he displayed tremendous temperament and batted for 281 balls on the fifth day. He, in fact, nearly pulled off an impossible draw but James Anderson, England’s last wicket was out on the penultimate ball of the game.
The match gave England a shocking defeat but it also laid the foundation of a majestic relationship between Ali and the fourth innings of a Test match.
However, the severity of his bowling skills was exhibited for the first time in his fifth Test when he tormented India at Southampton. His six wicket haul in the fourth innings enabled England to register a massive win by 266 runs.
After this impressive bowling performance, Ali hasn’t looked back. His off-spin has become a potent weapon which is difficult for any batsman to tackle - especially in the fourth innings where he has been the chief destructor.
A tale of the fabled fourth innings
Since his debut in 2014, only Rangana Herath (58 wickets), R Ashwin (57), and Yasir Shah (44) have claimed more wickets in the fourth innings than the England all-rounder who has 32 wickets.
And all these three bowlers have mostly bowled on Asian pitches where the pitch supports the spinners in the fourth innings. On the contrary, Ali has played most of his games on pitches that offered little help for spinners.
These are effectively achievements too big to be considered a "part-time bowler".
Since 2014, Ali is the third highest wicket taker for England in Tests with only James Anderson and Stuart Broad ahead of him with 137 scalps each. However, both pacers have bowled more overs than the off-spinner.
Anderson has claimed a wicket every 51.5 balls while Broad has taken a wicket in every 55.9 balls. Ali is not far behind and has taken a wicket every 61.6 balls. This is certainly a tremendous achievement for a bowler who plays in the team as a part-timer.
During the same period, the England all-rounder ranks fifth in the list of spinners with most wickets in Tests.
Equally impressive in the batting department
As mentioned earlier, Ali’s bowling heroics haven’t affected his batting. He is the third-highest run-scorer for England since his debut and is behind the two batting giants of English cricket viz. Joe Root (3999 runs) and Alastair Cook (3222).
However, a start difference is that both these batsmen play in the top order while Ali comes to bat in the lower middle order. Hence he has limited opportunities for scoring runs. But even then he averages 34.26 with the bat.
The all-round skills of the left-hand batsman have made him a vital organ of England’s Test unit. He bats in the lower middle order, bringing solidarity and bowls spin to balance the pace-heavy bowling artillery.
His tally of five Test hundreds and three five-wicket hauls is unmatched and is miles ahead of his team-mate Stokes who has four hundreds and two five-wicket hauls.
Comparisons with Sir Ian Botham
Such is Ali’s all-around abilities that comparisons with Sir Ian Botham, arguably, England’s finest all-rounder ever has become inevitable. Botham scored 5200 runs at an average of 33.54 and picked 383 wickets with an average of 28.40. He claimed a wicket every 56.9 balls.
Ali so far has amassed 2090 runs, averaging 34.26 with the bat and has 116 Test wickets to his name with an average of 37.95. His bowling strike rate as stated above is 61.6. Although these are early days for Ali, the statistics make it clear that the off-spinner may easily reach the benchmark set by Sir Botham.
Keeping statistics aside, the rise of Ali the quiet all-rounder is simply outstanding.