I’m going to hate writing every single word of this article. Why? Because I love Moeen Ali. As a Worcestershire fan I’ve seen him develop from a promising youngster into a fully fledged international player. And he’s great to watch. I’ve always been a sucker for elegant cricketers.
However, no matter how much I ask my heart to conquer my head, I simply do not agree that England should recall Moeen Ali to the Test team – even though he’s now ready to return. Here’s why …
The current narrative is that Moeen is an excellent international cricketer who only really lost form (and was dropped) because he wasn’t enjoying his cricket last year.
“I didn’t feel as valued as much as I felt I should have been. I had to get myself up for the Ashes and I remember bowling thinking, ‘I do not want to be here’ … it definitely affected me. I can see when I look back that my body language was horrendous throughout the game … it was almost like there was no interest … and the harder I tried the worse I got. It was so bad.”
Whilst I feel for Mo – England’s cricketers play far too much and the ECB don’t give two hoots about player welfare – his predicament last year doesn’t change his subpar record in previous years. And, if we look at the stats, his performances over 60 Test matches simply haven’t been good enough as either a bowler or a batsman.
Here are the headline stats … Mo the off-spinner averages 37 with an economy rate of 3.6. Economy rate is important, remember, because slow bowlers are often expected to do a holding role in the first innings and let the seamers rotate at the other end.
Compare this with much maligned Jack Leach, who some supporters couldn’t wait to get out of the side after one bad Test in New Zealand. In his first ten Test matches Leach averages 29, an economy rate of 2.9, and an identical strike rate to Mo (who is often portrayed as a ‘wicket-taker’)
Moeen’s record in individual countries also betrays his bothersome inconsistency. He averages 65 in India, 49 in South Africa, 49 in the UAE, and a whopping 115 in Australia. His records in the West Indies, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh (i.e. the weaker teams) is good. However, England’s next two marquee tours are to India and Australia. That doesn’t bode well.
One argument in favour of Mo is that his record in England, where we obviously play the most Test matches, isn’t bad at all. He averages 32.5 at home – very handy statistics for a spinner on our seamer-friendly surfaces. But even then there’s a but. His economy rate of 3.8 at home is far too high. In fact, he’s less economical in England than anywhere else in the world except the UAE.
The bottom line is this. It’s incredibly fanciful to expect Moeen to suddenly change into the consistent spinner we all want him to be. He’ll be 33 next summer and he hasn’t really improved. After a successful first year in Test cricket his average worsened every year in the subsequent three years. Although he’s done well in patches, two of his worst years as a Test spinner occurred in 2017/18 and 2019. Why is he suddenly going to turn into a world class spinner after a few months off playing in white ball events?
As someone who was highly encouraged by the performances of Dom Bess in South Africa – he looks like a natural spin bowler with a spinner’s brain who has improved significantly in a short space of time – I think it would be an incredibly backward step to return to Mo. Yes he’s one of the guys and the other players seem to like him. But amiability isn’t enough – especially when a younger replacement (who can also bat) is in situ and doing well.
It would also be foolish to recall Mo if it’s going to hinder the development of Leach, who currently has a lower Test average than Graeme Swann. England need to focus on developing these two young spinners rather than going back to a man who has had numerous opportunities in the past. If England had dropped Moeen every time he had a bad game, the brutal reality is that he wouldn’t have strung more than three or four consecutive appearances together.
Mo the batsman is a slightly different animal. He’s been messed around like a prince’s dogsbody. In fact, he’s batted in every single position in the batting order from No.1 to No.9. Surely this is some kind of record? It must have been incredibly unsettling for him.
Having said that, Moeen has still played many, many Tests in what most would consider to be his best position(s) – No.6, No.7, and No.8. Here’s how he’s fared:
No.6 – 12 Tests, average 22
No.7 – 20 Tests, average 37
No.8 – 19 Tests, average 27
Although he’s done pretty well at No.7 his overall record is still poorish. He’s great to watch, and when he comes off it’s glorious, but this doesn’t happen regularly enough to warrant a recall. What’s more, he’ll always be vulnerable against the short ball so Australia will be licking their lips.
An interesting comparison is Jos Buttler. England’s keeper, who many would like to see out of the side, averages 40 at No.6, 31 at No.7, and 28 at No.8. If Buttler isn’t good enough (or consistent enough) then how does one describe Mo?
Just like Moeen the bowler, Moeen the batsman rarely travels well either. He averages 20 down under, 23 In Bangladesh, 14 in New Zealand, 29 in South Africa, 13 in Sri Lanka, 14 in the UAE, and 18 in the West Indies. The only place he’s batted well abroad is India. These returns are what you’d expect from a tail-ender not a batsman with Moeen’s natural talent and flamboyance.
Consequently, much as I have a soft spot for Mo, there’s no logical reason to recall him to the Test side. I can see him being a useful stop-gap in Sri Lanka (as a third spinner) but even then it wouldn’t be a particularly progressive selection. Bess should play, Leach should play, so in an ideal world the 3rd spinner should provide something different. There’s little point picking two specialist off-spinners when you’ve also got Joe Root capable of providing part-time support. A spin attack of Leach (left arm), then Bess, Moeen, and Root (all right-arm off-spinners) doesn’t look particularly balanced. It would make more sense to include a leggie rather than Mo.
For some reason cricketers always seem to be better players when they’re not in the side. It’s a strange quirk of perception. Maybe it’s because people forget the bad times and only remember the good? I really don’t know. But it’s particularly true of Moeen Ali.
If the benchmark of good all-rounder is one who averages more with the bat than they do with the ball, then Moeen is a long way off what’s required at Test level. He averages a underwhelming 37 with the ball and a humble 29 with the bat. It’s just not particularly good.
Yes Mo has some good excuses. Injuries have occasionally hindered his bowling overseas, and he’s been moved around the order far too much for my liking. But at nearly 33 years of age it’s time for England to say “thanks for the memories” and move on.
I’ve enjoyed Mo’s Test career and he can clearly hold his head up high as a mercurial player who entertained the galleries and brought a lot of joy to supporters’ hearts. But equally I associate him with a subpar period in English Test history (2014 to 2019) in which the team was too erratic, under-achieved, and never really made any progress. We can’t pin all of this on Moeen, of course, but if you pick inconsistent cricketers then you’ll probably end up with inconsistent results.
England’s win in South Africa, under a new coach who encourages a more traditional approach than Trevor Bayliss’s uber-aggressive style, feels like the beginning of something new. There are several new faces, most of whom have performed consistently in the championship, and it’s actually quite promising.
So why go back? When it comes to Mo, it’s a firm ‘no’ from me.