Is Moeen The Answer To England’s Spin Bowling Conundrum?

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.

Michael Wood


  • Sorry, the idea the Moeen Ali is any sort of answer to anything at test level is patent nonsense. He averages just under 29 with the bat and almost 37 with the ball, and is on the downward trajectory. In one of my own recent posts I looked at this, and in addition to the two incumbents Leach and Bess there are Matt Parkinson, Amar Virdi and Liam Patterson-White with good first class records and, though some would regard this as heresy, there is also the possibility of seeing how Sophie Ecclestone fares among the men – I am pretty certain she would be better than Moeen Ali at any rate.

    • This strikes me as a little over the top, and is pretty baffling in relation to some of the other players you recommend.

      So Ali’s batting average of 29 and bowling average of 37 are not the answer to anything? Well, it’s better than Tufnell, Giles and Emburey of relatively recent English spinners for a start–were they also not the answer to anything as red-ball cricketers? In fact, with any sort of meaningful cut-off point, there are only 17 England spinners since the First World War who have a lower average.

      Of those, one of those is only there because his career included one series against Australia’s second team. Another ten have a strike rate at least 20% worse than Moeen, of whom four have one over 50% worse. Sixteen of the seventeen have three test centuries between them–or fewer than Moeen scored in the last seven months of 2016 alone–and the seventeenth is by pretty much any measure one of England’s best all-rounders ever.

      So he’s in fairly good company–and it depends a bit if you’re looking more for a strike bowler or a containing bowler. I’m also not generally a big fan of picking specialist bowlers because of their batting, but with Moeen’s record I can see why it might sway a selector over Virdi and Parkinson in particular, who sound like no. 11’s no. 11s and are reputedly pretty poor fielders (and yes, that argument doesn’t work with Bess and there’s a BIG if as to whether Moeen still has any form left with the bat…and possibly the ball!)

      But Patterson-White? The man who’s played all of five games of professional cricket, all within three months and who wasn’t picked at all last season, mainly in favour of an older player who’s averaged three games a season in his career so far?

      Or Ecclestone? If Ali’s 29 and 37 don’t cut it, then why would Ecclestone’s test bowling average of 39, strike rate of almost 90 and 160 runs across formats in 65 international games?

  • Certainly an interesting viewpoint and would be great to see if Mo could rekindle some of his early career form. I think we need to give him time and not simply bring in for a test here and there. Give him 5 matches minimum, put him at number 8 (consistently) and see how he goes. Hopefully, with this stability, his confidence will grow and we’ll get the old Moeen back. Fingers crossed!!

  • Yes I agree. And rremeber Ali’sbowling overseas is pretty poor. I don’t be!ieve in going backwards in spite of the fact that England’s last really good spinner was Swann. While Bess and even Leach are really slow bowlers, Virdi really gives the ball a rip and should be a no brainer. But he can’t bat or field much so I doubt he’ll play, not a Jack of all trades.

      • No Marek. Surrey. But I’ve not seen a lot of Parkinson as they don’t seem to want to play him. But I’ve watched Virdi a lot and he can be a real handful, because he can really give it a rip.

  • As I mentioned in the Root article, Bess and Leach were flattered in Galle by some pretty ordinary Sri Lankan batting, which is unlikely to be repeated in India. Neither seem capable of being consistently accurate enough to put pressure on the batsmen on decent wickets, as we saw with Bess during last summer’s tests. His rolling offspin lacks variety and is typical of a player raised on white ball. At least Moin will give the ball air and a chance. I know his record isn’t great abroad, but how many spinners have we ever produced that were consistently successful away from home? He is now an experienced pro and has bowled on the subcontinent against good batsmen. The other thing to consider is his prowess as a batsman, which is considerably superior to Bess.
    As mentioned above blooding new promising youngsters who have no real pedigree at county level, against this standard of opposition can only end in tears. If Moin and Leach get a pasting then it’s not a major blow for the future, whereas it could set a youngsters back years.

  • Bess averages 33 in 12 Tests and is just 23 years old with room to grow.

    Moeen Ali averages 37 in 60 Tests, is 33 years old, and hasn’t shown any improvement for years.

    Only in a chumocracy would any management team consider replacing the former with the latter. Sadly, however, that’s exactly what England are. If your face fits then you’re never dropped; you’re only ever rested to be brought back later at the first opportunity.

    This decision to recall Moeen would be even crazier in the current circumstances because he hasn’t bowled in red ball cricket for months. At least Bess (and Leach) have had some match practice.

    BTW The last time England toured India, Moeen took 8 wickets at an average of 65 in five Tests. I can’t see Bess doing any worse than this.

    I’ve always been a fan of Mo (I’m a Worcs supporter) but his successes have always been fleeting. It’s never something that’s sustained. I would have moved on a while back, sadly. Hope he proves me wrong.

    • “…only in a chumocracy…” is overdoing it I think. Bess’s average is worse than Ali’s if you only take out the eleven overs of assorted pies, slices of luck and occasional good balls that brought him a five-fer in Galle. While I wouldn’t pick Ali now–I’d do the same as Simon suggests below–I think the worry with Bess is that he looked pretty toothless at times in SL (bearing in mind India’s batting is a LOT better than SL’s) and sometimes did last summer too.

      So it depends a bit if you’re looking more for a tie-up-an-end spinner who might get some wickets every few innings or someone with a much better strike rate but who could well go for three-point-several an over. (I think, Simon, that’s also why it’s not necessarily over-thinking it to be wondering about Ali instead of Bess: some watchers will have watched the first-innings of the second SL test and shuddered at the difference between Bess and Leach, and Embuldeniya–whose record, interestingly, is strikingly similar to Ali’s).

      The “hasn’t shown any improvement for years” is a bit harsh too: it’s only two years since he had his best winter ever.

    • Lies, damn lies and statistics.
      Do you really believe Bess is one for the future in tests. A white ball roller.
      At least Moin gives the ball a bit of air and is used to bowling against decent batsmen.
      Also off spinners can be useful to keep an end going and give he seamers a break.
      Bess has never shown any sign he can keep any pressure on a batsman.

  • I suppose the thinking is that India’s top order are mostly RHBs and that they scored heavily off Nathan Lyon in Australia. Strengthening the batting is probably a factor too.

    However it is starnge, to put it mildly, that Bess goes from being the first choice spinner for the last twelve months to third choice and that just after a series which England won 2-0 with Bess playing a leading role. It feels at best like trying to be too clever and at worst like factors other than on-the-field play might be involved.

    Bess and Leach should play the first two Tests and then have a look at it.

  • This is a really interesting article and there’s a lot of sense in it. Mo has never had a clear role in his batting and this has inevitably impacted his career as a batsman. I don’t know whether we could say the same with his bowling.

    I don’t think Mo is a word beating bowler. But Bess has a lot of work to do with his bowling. His lengths are really poor and he doesn’t build pressure at all. The Indian batsmen will feast of his bowling and it could set him back. I would play Mo as the off spinner (if they play an off spinner) and enable Bess to work more on his consistency.

    I think the real question is whether England goes with one or 2 spinners. None of the spinners are good enough to win test matches in India against India’s batting line up. So I personally think England will be better sticking with a seam attack. If they go with one spinner, it should be Leach with all the right handers India have. If they go with 2 spinners and stokes as the extra seamer then I think Mo should be given a chance.

  • No. He is not the answer. Apart from Swann, no one has been in recent years. We have produced a succession of slow bowlers but no one who could go through decent Test sides. Bess shows promise but lacks experience and poses no real threat to the Indian batsmen. I agree with Guy M. The only spinner I would even consider picking as such would be Leach, but I would be thinking of using Root also.

  • The news has just come in: Channel 4 will be broadcasting the Ind-Eng series, which is undoubtably good news for English fans.

  • No in a word. Look at his figures in india four years ago and in Australia in 2017-18. They were dismal and lyon was all over him like a rash. He has been dropped from the england 2020 side, barely got a look in at the ipl, and hasn’t played a first class match in 18 months. Hardly a ringing argument to include him. The only argument might be if they think we are going to be annihilated and they want to protect bess from long term damage which moeen sadly sustained in the last tour over here and to australia. His action has gone to pieces.


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