Ever since Moeen Ali made his England debut in 2014 ahead of the World T20 that year, people have been unsure about what kind of cricketer he is. Brought into the team on the back of some very impressive batting performances for Worcestershire, he was selected just as much for his ability to bowl spin.
When Graeme Swann retired halfway through the embarrassing horror show that was the 2013/14 Ashes tour of Australia he left a hole in the England side that has since taken on the appearance of a gaping wound. Swann’s presence in the side had allowed England to play three seamers and an extra batsman. When he went, it become clear that England had no viable replacement.
There was some hope that Monty Panesar would come back into the team, and he was brought into the side in the immediate aftermath of Swann’s retirement, but it soon became clear that we was not the bowler he was. He cannot make it into the first team for his county side, Northamptonshire.
So it was with this dearth of spin options at the forefront of the selectors' minds that they picked Moeen Ali, a top-order batsman who batted at three and could bowl spin when needed.
Moeen’s bowling record in First-Class cricket is modest with 245 wickets at an average of 40. His batting record in that format is better, but still not outstanding. He has scored 9,244 First-Class runs at an average of 38.5. His Test numbers aren’t great either - a batting average of 33 and a bowling average of 39 - but this doesn’t tell the story of what Moeen brings to this England side.
He has scored important runs throughout his Test career, often coming in at seven and having to bat with the tail. He has played 32 Tests and he has batted at numbers 1,2, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 in the order. Whatever England have asked him to do he has done it, be it opening or marshalling the lower-order. There are few cricketers that have has as fluid a batting career with England, and none since the shuffling-the-pack days of the 1990s.
Moeen’s bowling has improved massively since he first came into the Test team for the first match of the summer of 2014. Some of that improvement is credited to Kumar Dhamasena, the former Sri Lankan off-spinner and current umpire. Ian Bell took Moeen to one side and told him that if he wanted to succeed in Test cricket he needed to bowl quicker. Moeen sought out Dharmasena in the nets and asked him how he could bowl faster without his bowling just being flat darts.
“I went into the nets and the umpire Kumar Dharmasena was there and I asked him, as a former off-spinner, how could I bowl quicker without it being flat,” Moeen said at the end of the 2014 summer. “I didn't want to bowl one-day stuff. And he said to me: 'Just grab your pocket as quickly as you can with your non-bowling arm.' As soon as I bowled one ball I knew it would work. That, for some reason, allows me to bowl quicker and straighter without being flat.”
Against Sri Lanka that summer Moeen had taken three wickets at an average of 60.3. Against India in the second series of that summer he managed 19 wickets at 23. Grabbing his pocket seemed to have worked.
Not that it has been smooth-sailing since then. He has averaged over 45 with the ball in seven of his 10 Test series, and when he was in the UAE against Pakistan he averaged just under 50 and was going at over four runs an over. He is a vastly improved bowler who has found a niche for himself as the fulcrum that balances this England team, but he is not a world-class spinner.
The issue for England is that there isn’t anyone better. Just as when Ashley Giles was a fixture of the England Test side 10 years ago despite having a bowling average of 40.6, without someone who can improve on what Moeen gives this team there is no sense in replacing him.
He has done well in the Tests in Bangladesh. He still bowled too many bad balls but he finished with 11 wickets at 22 and comfortably outbowled the other slow-bowling options that England had in the squad. But India in India will be the toughest test that he has faced in his two-and-a-half years as a Test cricketer. Waiting for him is a top-order that will look to smash him out of the attack. What Moeen will focus on is that this was the tactic that India used against him two years ago in England, and he had his best ever series.
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