There is very little Moeen Ali hasn’t been asked to do for this England side. He’s opened the batting, he’s batted at numbers three through nine, he’s been their first spinner, he’s been their second spinner, albeit only in name — he’d probably even drive the team bus if he was asked to, no doubt in an unassuming, languid style.
There is also little doubt that he is really too good a batsman to be coming in at number eight, but in a side stuffed to the gunwales with all-round talents, that is where he finds himself.
With England’s twin gingers, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, ahead of him, the arguments for Moeen batting so low are not without merit, it is just that on the days when he is on song it feels a little like using King Arthur’s Excalibur to open a pile of old letters.
With England looking to wrap up a series victory over South Africa, day three at Old Trafford was one of those days, the elegant left-hander ensuring that a customary wobble from the top order wouldn’t allow the visitors a way back into this Test.
England were 134/6 when Moeen entered the fray, another spirited performance from Morne Morkel and Keshav Maharaj, this time ably supported by Duanne Olivier and Kagiso Rabada, giving South Africa the smallest of feet in the door as they attempted to mount a surprising comeback.
By the time some long-expected rain arrived in Manchester to wash out play for the day 18 overs later, any South African optimism had been extinguished; England’s bearded assassin had swashbucklingly slammed that door shut — finishing the day on 67 not out from just 59 balls to give his side an almost certainly match-winning lead of 360 and with two wickets still in hand.
Moeen is remarkably mild-mannered for a man who seems to relish nothing more than squeezing the life out of opponents just as things are starting to go right for them, and yet this is the role he excels at.
It is the second time in this series that he has played such a knock, the first coming in England’s first innings at Lord’s last month where South Africa had reduced the hosts to 190/5, the prospect of securing a match-winning position dangling invitingly before them.
That however reckoned without Moeen who was on hand to nonchalantly bludgeon the life out of South Africa, eventually dismissed for 87 nearly 50 overs later, having marshalled England to 413/8 to help them finish on 458 all out.
And all this from a man who also tops the wicket-taking charts for either side in this series, his 20 scalps coming at an average of just 16.10. In fact, after his starring role with the bat on day three at Old Trafford, Moeen is now only the eighth Englishman to make over 200 runs and take 20 wickets in a series, the last being Andrew Flintoff in the 2005 Ashes.
With the fire of Stokes and the icy cool of Moeen, these truly are halcyon days for English all-rounders, and that is before you even account for the talents of Bairstow as a wicketkeeper-batsman.
For now then, Moeen looks set to remain at eight, both cricket’s most elegant safety net and on days like Sunday, its most unassuming sledgehammer.