There is a certain vibe about Moeen Ali. A seemingly innocuous part-time bowler, the cricketing world was amazed when the Surrey lad, primarily picked for his searing drives and powerful flicks, snapped up a fluent Kumar Sangakkara — on debut, no less. It proved to be his only wicket in the Test and it was dubbed a mere fluke. But then in the next Test, he once again got rid of the Lankan southpaw, this time trapped in front with a delivery that drifted in, a trademark off-spinner’s dismissal and thus began the confusion regarding Ali's role in the side.
Now, three years and 40 Tests later, Ali is England's No 1 spinner with 116 wickets, including three five-wicket hauls and one 10-wicket haul. The last three of his wickets came off consecutive balls to seal a hat-trick — the first by an England spinner since 1938-39 when Tom Goddard picked one up against the same opposition.
Yet, the sense of a batsman who bowls a bit hasn't deserted the wily spinner who learns his craft from one of the best off-spinners world cricket has seen: Saqlain Mushtaq. When India toured England, Ali was trusted with the primary spinner’s role and the offie grabbed vital wickets right through the series including those of Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay, Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan. He grabbed 6/67 at Southampton to seal England's win in the third Test. But, the world wasn't convinced.
They blamed the Indian batsmen for playing wild slogs and treating Ali as a part-timer. No credit was given to ‘Mo’, as he is fondly called.
Against Australia in the Ashes, West Indies in the Caribbean and New Zealand at home, Ali continued to reinforce his reputation with vital breakthroughs. In December 2015, in Durban, Ali snapped up figures of 4/69 and 3/47 to walk away with the Man of the Match award. While his batting form was fading due to frequent alterations in his batting position, Ali was constantly improving his credentials as an off-spinner.
An unbeaten 155 against Sri Lanka in the home series helped him re-establish his place in the side as a batsman who bowls, although he was by then considered England's primary spinner. He further enhanced the belief that he is still capable of being in the team as a batsman alone in the Pakistan series with scores of 86, 108 and 63.
Yet, over the past two years, when the axe had to be brought down, Ali’s was among the first names mentioned.
A hundred in India was marred by poor performances with the ball but all that took a backseat in the build-up to the South African Test series. Trevor Bayliss opted to include Liam Dawson to relieve the pressure on Mo and even called Dawson the primary spinner — probably a tactical move considering the fact that Ali ended up with a 10-wicket haul and the Man of the Match award at the culmination of the Lord's Test.
"We’ll stick with one spinner and one batsman that bowls a little. And that’s important for Mo more than anything. He wants to be in the team as a batsman that bowls a bit so we’ve selected him as a batsman and the second spinner," Bayliss had said.
This probably tricked the Proteas batsmen into taking Ali lightly. However, more than batsmen being guilty of underestimating him, it was a case of Mo out-thinking them with guile, flight, drift and turn. There was precision, planning and proper execution behind all of his dismissals and he deservedly walked away with the Man of the Match award. Yet, he wasn't rated very highly, not even by his teammates.
In the third Test, with Dean Elgar and Chris Morris fighting it out for a draw on a decent batting track, Joe Root, the England skipper rotated his four seam bowlers to try and find the breakthrough. At 12.58 pm, England had enough time to squeeze in one more over before tea only if it was bowled by a spinner, and Root was forced to give the ball to Ali.
The very first ball saw him induce an outside edge that hit Jonny Bairstow's pad and got away, but off the final ball of the over, he drifted the ball away from Morris to eke out an outside edge that ended a threatening partnership. He was destructive after the tea break, as he picked out Elgar and Kagiso Rabada off the last two balls of the over before returning to scalp Morne Morkel with the first ball of his next to complete a hat-trick. England spinners don’t usually take hat-tricks. When the last one was taken, Ali was not even born.
Right now would probably be the right time for the cricketing world to acknowledge this innocuous off-spinner.
After all, since 2016, no England bowler has taken more wickets than Mo, spinner or not. His 55 wickets in 20 Tests during this time-frame puts him 10th in the list of most wicket-takers in Test cricket (Stuart Broad is level with him at 55 wickets). Considering the fact that he is also the ninth highest run-getter in this period, Ali has done fairly well. It's time for the critics to acknowledge Mo.