With rumours circulating that Moeen Ali will replace Dom Bess in the first Test against India later this week, new writer Michael Wood argues that Mo’s the experienced head that England desperately need to lead their spin attack. Can he finally find that elusive consistency?
Watching England’s faltering second innings against India at The Ageas Bowl in 2018, a nagging concern suddenly became blindingly obvious. After Alastair Cook had edged Jasprit Bumrah to slip, Moeen Ali unexpectedly came to the crease at number three. In the first innings he batted at seven. Whatever the thinking by the management, presumably to allow captain Joe Root to bat in his favoured position at four, it turned out to be a poor decision. You could only feel sorry for the Worcestershire man as he trudged his way back to the pavilion for just nine runs.
This was to be no isolated event, as muddled thinking from England would follow Ali throughout his first stretch as a Test cricketer. When he made himself unavailable for Test selection in 2019, whilst still playing white ball cricket for England, you could understand why. He had been asked to perform so many different roles as a Test match cricketer that he no longer knew who he was meant to be. As he now looks to regain his place after an 18-month absence, can Chris Silverwood and Joe Root finally give him the clarity of purpose to get the best out of him?
When Mo made his debut in 2014, England were rebuilding after being blown away by Mitchell Johnson during the Ashes whitewash the previous winter. Ben Stokes had made a memorable century at the scorched WACA in Perth but was still very green, and Jonny Bairstow had not fully established himself. Only Cook, Root, and Ian Bell could be certain of their places in the top six. Whilst there were major problems to solve with the bat, England also needed a replacement for Graeme Swann, another casualty of the burning Australian spotlight.
Moeen first batted at six, presumably on the strength of his easy stroke making, and scored an encouraging 48 in his first innings against Sri Lanka at Lords. In the next Test, he made an impressive 108 not out. Had England solved a batting problem with the bonus of a wicket taker as pitches got tired?
Things got more complicated later that summer when he took six wickets against India at Southampton and four wickets in Manchester. Both came in the final innings of the game. You could feel the excitement, maybe he was not a batsman after all, maybe he was the new Swann? The selectors certainly thought so and the following year he was dropped down from number six to eight against New Zealand and Australia. Both Stokes and Joss Buttler had been moved above him in a re-jigged line up. A career batting at eight seemed his destiny.
So why then did Moeen find himself opening the batting in the UAE against Pakistan in October 2015? Nothing had suggested that he possessed the game to make the shift, having either come in as a middle order stroke maker, or supporting the tail and scoring much-valued lower order runs. Although promoting Mo allowed England to have four seamers and two spinners, surely Bell or Bairstow would’ve been more obvious candidates to move up?
The experiment, unsurprisingly, failed as Moeen recorded an average of 14 across six innings. Less than two months later against the Proteas in South Africa he was back to batting at eight.
Yet England weren’t done with moving him around. The following summer, he was batting at seven. It seemed more through luck than design as Stokes, Bairstow, Chris Woakes and Moeen were all shifted around, seemingly without reason. He took this chance to show his class however, with scores of 155 not out, 63, 86 not out and 108.
Following the village cricket edict that a man in form gets promoted, he was moved up to five in Bangladesh and India, again asked to move positions to help the team’s balance. As the tour progressed, he went on to bat at three and four. He had now completed the full set, having batted in every position from 1-9 between May 2015 and December 2016.
If the lack of clarity of his role affected his form then who could blame him? In his final 42 innings from December 2016 until his most recent Test against Australia in August 2019, he only managed four half centuries. By the time he was finally dropped, as a player whose bowling always took strength from his batting, he looked hopelessly at sea in both disciplines.
With the recent emergence of young batting talent, no one talks about Moeen the batsman now, which may make his return to the side more straightforward. In the seam department, plans to succeed James Anderson and Stuart Broad have been long discussed and planned. Woakes, Sam Curran and Mark Wood have all pointed to the value of having the two stalwarts giving them advice on the field. What is less discussed, however, is how the spin bowling department will evolve in the same way. With 60 Tests and 181 wickets – twice as many as all England’s current other spinning options combined – no one is better placed to solve the problem than Moeen Ali.
England’s new regime clearly want to play Test cricket in a simple way; big first innings runs and pressure in the field. If they really aim to beat the best, home and away, they will need robust spinning options. Dom Bess and Jack Leach are by no means the finished article and so there must be a place for Moeen and his experience. Silverwood and Root clearly agree as they have always publicly kept the door firmly open for his return.
Moeen’s decision to make himself available for Test selection again is extremely well timed as England face a tough year ahead. With four Tests in India about to start, have the management team finally learnt from the mistakes of their predecessors? Perhaps Moeen’s new role will be to bring through the next generation of England spinners by leading from the front? Despite his recent brush with Covid-19, I feel optimistic about his chances and cannot wait to see Moeen back taking Test wickets.