A Beard In The Hand: Why It’s Time To Appreciate Moeen Ali’s Bowling

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Forget the cool dude image, forget his nonchalant charm, forget his gorgeous batting (this isn’t about aesthetics), and forget the dismissive “he’s a batsman who bowls a bit” label. It’s about time we looked at Moeen the bowler in terms of results. Is Mo a test class spinner? Is he worth his place in the side?

The second question might seem unfair considering his exploits at Lord’s and his hat-trick at The Oval. But let’s not forget that many people want England to invest in a ‘specialist’ spinner. Is an all-rounder who bowls spin really sufficient?

Having done some digging through the history books (or rather Cricinfo’s Stats Guru) I believe the latter question can be answered with an unequivocal “yes”.

Why? Because even if you crave a specialist spinner – let’s say someone like a Monty Panesar, John Emburey, or Phil Tufnell – the fact is that Mo’s test average is better than most of the so called specialists England have picked in recent years anyway.

After playing 40 test matches, which I’m sure you’ll agree is a fair sample, Moeen averages 38 with the ball. That might not be particularly brilliant but it’s not bad either when you compare him to much admired twirlers like Monty, Embers and Tuffers.

It might come as something of a surprise, but Mo currently has exactly the same test match average as Emburey and Tufnell (38), and he’s only just behind Monty (35) and Robert Croft (37).

What’s more, he’s statistically better than Ashley Giles, who people remember affectionately as the ultimate team man. Gilo averaged 41 with the ball and 21 with the bat. Mo’s statistics (particularly with the bat) are much better.

Considering that England have had so many poor test spinners over the years – or perhaps I should say spinners who didn’t quite live up to expectations – I reckon Mo is doing pretty well. He’s certainly done better than Adil Rashid (43) Shaun Udal (43), Gareth Batty (61), Richard Dawson (62), and poor old Ian Salisbury (77).

One might argue, having digested those figures, that Moeen is worth his place as a bowler even if you take his batting out of the equation – especially when one considers that his record in England is very respectable indeed (70 wickets at a very handy 34).

You could even argue assertively that Moeen is the most effective all-rounder England possess in home conditions, regardless of the pace he bowls. Here’s a stat that might raise your eyebrow, a la Roger Moore.

Moeen Ali (In England) Batting Average 39, Bowling Average 34

Ben Stokes (in England) Batting Average 30, Bowling Average 38.

I bet you didn’t expect that. Remind me which one is the most highly rated and expensive all-rounder in world cricket again?

Although Stokes has obviously done better than Mo overseas – the odd double hundred at Newlands can boost one’s statistics quite nicely – their career records overall are very similar.

Stokes averages 34 with both bat and ball in test cricket, whereas Mo averages 34 with the bat and 38 with the ball. However, it’s worth remembering that Moeen has batted all over the place (and often as low as 8 in the order). This clearly gives Stokes an advantage.

However, let’s return to the comparison with spinners. Inevitably whenever England pick a new slow bowler comparisons with Graeme Swann are made. How can they not? Swann was, after all, the only world class spinner we’ve had since (arguably) Phil Edmonds. However, Mo isn’t doing that badly compared to Swann or Edmonds either.

Swann 255 test wickets at 30

Edmonds 125 test wickets at 34

I admit that these averages, particularly Swann’s, are better than Moeen’s, but let’s not forget Mo’s prowess with the bat. Both Swann and Edmonds were called upon to score lower order runs (sometimes at No.8) and managed career averages of 22 and 18 respectively. Mo’s average of 34 with five centuries and ten fifties is obviously a massive bonus.

One could even argue, albeit subjectively, that Mo makes a bigger contribution to the team than Swann. They’re a similar standard in terms of fielding, Swann averages 8 less with the ball but 12 less with the bat. It’s pretty close.

Mo’s strike rate is also incredibly similar to Swann’s. Moeen takes a wicket every 61 balls compared to Swann’s 60. It’s interesting that Monty’s strike rate was just 75. Shane Warne, arguably the greatest spinner of all time, had a strike rate of 57 – not much better than Moeen. It’s amazing when you think about it.

Obviously I’ve mentioned Moeen’s career statistics in England as being particularly interesting – after all, England play half their test matches at home (and Mo has been particularly good in Blighty with an average of 39 with the bat and 34 with ball). However, highlighting this strength also inadvertently emphasises Mo’s achilles heel: his bowling abroad.

With the exception of Bangladesh, where Mo has taken 11 wickets at an impressive average of 23, his bowling hasn’t travelled well at all. He was disappointing in India, poor in South Africa, and ineffective in the UAE.

Many will argue, quite rightly, that overseas is where England need a world class spinner most. After all, our seamers aren’t always effective when the weather’s hotter and the pitches are different in character.

However, I still think this is something that Mo can put right. Sometimes we forget that he really was a part-timer when he first played for England. And we forget that he’s often learning on the job – something that’s hard to do in foreign and unfamiliar surroundings. Is it really surprising that Mo couldn’t find the right pace at which to bowl in India?

The good news, however, is that Mo does have ability as a bowler. He puts a decent amount of revs on the ball and his action is basically sound. He even gets a little bit of loop when his confidence is high. Therefore, there’s no reason why Mo can’t mature into a good test bowler in all conditions in time. There might be a few bumps along the way, but there were bumps with the likes of Panesar and Tufnell too.

Overall Mo is currently doing a good job as England’s frontline spinner. Sometimes it’s easy to get greedy, and to pine for another Swann, but the truth is that orthodox finger spinners are rarely that effective in test cricket. Tim May, who is probably the second best off-spinner I’ve seen in recent times, averaged 34 in test cricket. That’s not too different from Mo. And most teams would kill for a Tim May.

So next time you feel like criticising Moeen – don’t worry we’ve all done it – remember to place his career in context. Think about where he’s come from, the overall contribution he makes to the team, and thank the Lord that we don’t have to pick guys like Salisbury anymore.

Oh and did I mention that he’s an absolute dude?

James Morgan

28 Comments

  1. While I agree that his bowling is sometimes underrated I think you go too far. Let’s face it the only real spinner you have mentioned is Swann, there were far better bowlers in club cricket than the other names you mentioned so, yes, he is better than most of them, much of the time. You have to go back to Underwood and Laker for proper comparisons and Underwood was really a special case anyway.

    The batting prowess is a misnomer too inasmuch as to win a test, twenty opposition wickets must be taken and one could always rely on Murali (let’s ignore the action) Gibbs and some of the more recent Asian spinners to take fistfuls of wickets to force a win. That is much more important than ‘not a bad bat’ either. Let the right mix of batters put runs on the board and the right blend of bowlers take twenty wickets and one won’t go too far wrong!

    All rounders are safeguards against either of the former not performing up to par and they have been a special crowd from the get-go…Sobers, Botham, Kallis and maybe Stokes will enter that pantheon one day…Australia hasn’t really had anyone in that league (some would probably argue for Miller perhaps) and they have done all right over the years!

    • James Morgan on

      I agree that taking 20 wickets is important but Moeen does that quite well. His strike rate in test cricket is 61. Swann’s was 60! And Panesar’s was 75. I forgot to mention that in the article. In fact, I might go back and add that in.

      I don’t think Mo is perfect by any means, but he’s probably the best available. That’s what some people forget. The might want a specialist spinner to be picked but is there one better than Mo? His stats suggest he’s done pretty well. An average slightly below the excellent Tim May suggests he’s a useful test spinner.

      • I’d argue that Rashid, had he been handled better at test level, would be challenging Moeen – and I think perhaps has more potential as a bowler – but I tend to agree with your assessment of Moeen.

  2. I could read love letters to Mo all day long. He’s by far my favourite cricketer.
    I do think you’ve gone a little bit gooey-eyed on this occasion, his stats are impressive at home, and he does look better than a part timer but I wonder how much do batsmen switch off, they’ve just seen of Anderson and Broad who in English conditions are pretty formidable , quite often our first change is decent too so do they just switch off a bit.
    As you say abroad he is poor and I shudder at the thought of what Australia will do to him. If he can chip in with 15 wickets at 40 in the ashes I’ll be happy.
    I’m so pleased he’s having a good summer though, it really annoys me that he is being asked to bat 8, he is good enough to be given a chance at 5, and to keep seeing people drafted in ahead must get him down. But he doesn’t show it. He just gets on with it and keeps chipping in.

    • I’d move Stokes up to five, and Bairstow to six – both are significantly better batsmen than Moeen, I think. He’d fit in very nicely at seven, and it’s always welcome to have a punishing stroke player available down the order.

      The only genuine batting problem England have is at three.

      • Batting at 7, Moeen Ali has an average of 69 (from 9 tests); batting at 8 , it’s 26 (from 14 tests).

        But if he bats at 7, who bats at 8?

        With Ben Stokes also batting in the middle order, that’s two bowlers without ‘using up’ any of the bottom-4 places. Usually the team doesn’t need 6 bowlers.

        Sometimes there’s a choice between choosing the best available wicketkeeper and a keeper who can bat; Moeen Ali at 7 means the keeper could bat at 8 (or even at 9, with Chris Woakes at 8). But that doesn’t apply at the moment with Jonny Bairstow (or Jos Buttler).

        So 8 would be a specialist batter?

  3. I wiled away some time the other evening doing exactly what you have done, James, and, like you, was quite surprised at the results. I really had forgotten how poor Ashley Giles’ average was (and as you suggest, he was considered indispensable to the team). I’ve always really admired Moeen and felt that he has been treated quite harshly by the critics. It can’t be easy following an excellent bowler like Swann (worth mentioning that DRS helped his stats considerably), after all, how many spinners did Australia go through after Warne before they settled on Lyon, and he still comes in for some criticism.
    No, Moeen has done an excellent job for England in the circumstances.
    Incidentally the point about batsmen relaxing when Moeen comes on is fair, but, lets face it in the 55 years that I have been following England this has often been the case when they have used mediocre county standard spinners, the difference today is that batsmen (batters?) are more likely to give it a bit of a tonk which can bring the odd wicket.

  4. “We’ve all done it”?

    Nope. I’ve never criticised Mo. I think he’s, in pundit parlance, one of the first names down on the team sheet. Has never got the plaudits he deserves. And his beard is epic.

    • I think you’re right. And he’s the first man to score 250+ runs and take 25 wickets in a 4 match series, which is a great all round effort.

  5. I expect Moeen to go from strength to strength under Root, who, unlike many previous England captains, not least Cook, actually understands how to use a spin bowler. Not every bowler is as self-confident as Swann or able as he was to set his own fields. Others have relied too much on their captain, who has shown little understanding of what a spinner brings to the game apart from giving the quicks a break before the new ball, or bowling long sessions on absolutely flat tracks when there’s nothing in it for the quicks. As a part-time spinner himself, Root understands that a spinner can be used for attack as well as for control, as we saw, in particular, at Lord’s.

    It helps, of course, that the South Africans aren’t noted for being good players of spin (or for producing good spinners themselves). Off spinners rarely do well in Australia, so I would like to see Rashid brought back to partner Ali sooner rather than later.

  6. John Fitzgerald on

    You have obviously forgotten Hugh Tayfield’s 170 test wickets with off spin. One of South Africa’s most effective bowlers.

    • James Morgan on

      Wasn’t Tayfield back in the 1950s? Uncovered pitches etc. Very different game for finger spinners now.

      • Yes… they’ve got DRS today.
        Interesting commentary from Swann on TMS relating how when DRS first came in at test level, he found it considerably easier to take wickets in tests than he did in county cricket.

  7. Matches per 5-fer probably a better indication of a bowler’s match-winning ability:
    Muralitharan 1.99 (ie 5 in an innings every 1.99 matches) Pity about his bowling action
    Warne 3.92 Surprising, I had though he would show up better, but he was used as a stock bowler for much of the time
    Kumble 3.77
    Herath 2.68 Seriously underrated in the media. A classic slow left-armer
    Ashwin 2.04
    Harbhajan 4.12
    Swann 3.53 Up with the best
    Ali 13.3 A long way to go

    • James Morgan on

      Obviously Moeen isn’t in the same class as the guys you’ve listed above, but his strike rate must count for something. I also think Moeen has less chance of getting 5-fers that some of the other guys. Murali, for example, was Sri Lanka’s main bowler and probably bowled half their overs. Warne had to share wickets with McGrath, so his stats don’t completely surprise me. The likes of Kumble, Ashwin etc play in conditions where the spinners are the main attacking threat.

      I don’t think Moeen’s role is to be a strike bowler as England usually rely on their pacemen, especially at home. The spinner in England traditionally plays a supporting role, and I think Mo is doing that pretty well. But yes, he still isn’t the finished article and has much to work on.

    • Nothing wrong with Murali’s action – he just had a very flexible wrist (though Batty’s action?)

      Some mention of Underwood above. Was he ever “deadly” on other than uncovered wet pitches? I’ve heard it said that he was picked as England’s umbrella – taken along in case it rained.

  8. btw I live in Lancashire, and have taken an interest in the weather forecast. Nailed-on draw, I fear – I’d be surprised if they get in three days worth of play in total (and I need to cut the grass!)

  9. John Fitzgerald on

    In any case underwood was not a spinner. Playfair always correctly listed him as Left Arm Medium. He bowled cutters and was deadly on drying wickets but not as often lised Slow Left arm.

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