I guess it was inevitable in the end. Faced with the prospect of a long Ashes tour, in which he may have been peppered by Australian quicks and mauled by Australia’s batsmen, Moeen Ali has prudently decided to call it quits. We’ll still see him in white ball colours, of course, but his Test career has come to a close.
How will we remember him? Very fondly, I hope. As a Worcestershire supporter, I have enjoyed every minute of Mo’s career, and I feel genuine pride at his achievements. He’ll always have a special place in my heart because he stayed loyal to his county throughout his career, despite constant rumours linking him with a move to Edgbaston.
What’s more, Mo always, always, remained humble. While Birmingham’s other sporting hero – the footballer with the alice band – decided to take a different path because his current employers couldn’t match his aspirations and weren’t a good fit for his superstar brand, Moeen always remained grounded. No release clauses for him.
Having said that, however, I’m glad that Mo has decided to step away from Test cricket at this point. It’s clearly the best thing for his mental health and, if I’m being honest, I don’t think he warrants a place in the side these days. I would much prefer England to invest in Jack Leach, who has actually had a tremendous start to his Test career statistically – although I suspect that, given Silverwood’s history, Dom Bess might be the man lined up to replace Moeen because of his potential with the willow.
Moeen’s typically candid and honest interview in Cricinfo, which is a really interesting read, makes it obvious why he couldn’t really go on. His heart just wasn’t in it anymore. And I can understand why. Although he hasn’t always performed consistently for England, he’s also been messed around quite a lot. He’s been shunted up and down the order, been dropped and recalled more times than I can remember, and endured a tortuous time in self-isolation overseas after contracting Covid-19. Consequently, as he approaches his mid-30s, it makes perfect sense for him to prioritise the T20 circuit while he’s still box office. Mo’s certainly not letting anyone down by retiring now.
However, as I reflect on Mo’s career, I’m left in two minds. Was he mismanaged – in other words, would he have performed better if given the chance to play as a batsman who bowled (like he does for Worcs) in a clearly defined role – or was it his versatility that enabled him to play so many games and generally hang around the squad (and remain in the selectors’ thoughts) for so long? Maybe he would have been dropped permanently a long time ago if he was merely a specialist batsman that could turn his arm over?
There were moments in his career when Moeen looked the real deal as a batsman. His maiden century against Sri Lanka and a ton batting up the order in India were probably the best examples. However, there were also times when he looked very vulnerable against the short ball and gave his wicket away cheaply through ill-advised swipes – a bad habit that actually characterised his early years as a promising batsman in county cricket. A first class average of 36 and a list A average of 28 pretty much tells the story. Mo never lacked for talent. But talent is only half the battle.
As a bowler, Moeen was always capable of taking wickets. His ‘best ball’ as he puts it, really was good enough for most, including Virat Kohli who he dismissed on more than one occasion. However, his biggest weakness was always his inability to offer Alastair Cook and then Joe Root any control in the field. This is actually half a spinner’s job. Sadly, his Test economy rate of 3.61 just doesn’t cut the mustard.
Overall, therefore, Mo was always mercurial rather than masterly. The highs were absolutely delicious but the lows left a somewhat unpleasant taste in the mouth. The bottom line is that he probably frustrated more than he elated. There were too many times, particularly overseas, when his captain needed more.
The one caveat that I’d add, however, is that Mo’s record as a bowler in England was actually more than acceptable. He won Tests and generally complemented the seamers very nicely. But of course, there’s always more pressure (and expectations are much higher) when English spinners travel abroad and there’s less assistance for the seamers. This is when captains need their slow bowlers to be reliable. And sadly, Moeen was never that.
So now we move on. Mo will leave some craving more but others quietly glad to see the end. Which camp am I in? My heart is in the first camp (how can you not miss his cover drive?) but my head says that his departure was probably overdue.
Some players in England’s dress room, which I’ve previously described as a chumocracy, are never really dropped; they’re only ever rested and then recalled at the first opportunity whether they deserve it or not. At least Moeen’s retirement draws a line under what’s been an incredibly entertaining ride. There will be no more random recalls. And no more being unfairly dropped into the middle of Test series without any red ball practice, either.