Ben Gardner laments the loss of form experienced by Moeen Ali in ODI cricket.
We need to talk about Moeen Ali. Among one group of England fans, those who remember the good times and see him for all that he is, he’s loved. Among a smaller, but just as vocal section, he’s an example of the favouritism of selection which holds England back and sees whoever their preferred player is kept on the outer.
But even those in the former group should be concerned that Moeen might now be winding down. His last Test feels a distant memory, and if he doesn’t earn a recall for England’s tours of India and Sri Lanka, it will feel like that door has been shut. And it’s easy to see something similar happening in ODI cricket too.
In the last two years, Moeen averages 15.84 with the bat, and 88.09 with the ball. He was dropped during England’s World Cup campaign, and will be 36 by the time the next World Cup comes round. He has bounced back from poor form countless times before. Notably, he averaged 16 in 2016 and 45 in 2017, a year which included a 57-ball 102 against West Indies. In a crowded field, it still stands out as one of the best by an England ODI batsman in recent years.
But this latest rough patch feels different, and the first ODI against Australia saw what must now be considered, heartbreakingly, as a typical Moeen Ali performance. He bowled 10 wicketless overs for 59 runs – the joint most expensive on the night – and managed just six off 13 with the bat.
In fairness, his role has never been to take wickets, and his ability to keep a lid on the run rate remains mostly undiminished. Even during the World Cup, his penultimate spell with the ball was 0-40 from 10 overs against Sri Lanka. But it is maybe telling that, despite that being very good by Moeen’s own standards, he was still dropped a game later.
That role, the finger-spinner who effectively presses pause on the game for 10 overs, doesn’t just feel distinctly un-England, it feels out of step with modern ODI cricket. When middle-over wickets are raved about, and team’s can smash 150 in the last 10, the sort of spell Moeen specialises in can just see a team lay the platform for the carnage to come.
When Moeen is smashing 50-ball hundreds from No.7, you can accept that what he offers with the ball is good enough. It balances the side perfectly, with him and Stokes combining to be the fifth bowler, and the extra batting depth giving England’s gunslingers licence to attack. But even Moeen bowling at his best doesn’t make sense for England if he’s batting at his worst, in this format, at least.
What is most crushing about Moeen’s loss of batting form are the occasional flashes of his past brilliance. There was a nine-ball 31 against Afghanistan in the World Cup, an achingly beautiful 11-ball 39 against South Africa in a T20I earlier this year, and that rousing 33-ball 66 against Pakistan. But it increasingly feels like these are exceptions rather than anything approaching a return to form, and it’s perhaps instructive that those more recent examples came in the shortest format.
There, there is hope. Moeen is in a finishing role he’s not ideally suited for, but still looks destructive against spin, and, on his day, against pace too. Here, Glenn Maxwell was brought on as soon as Moeen entered, the kind of off-spin he would devour in the Blast, or in England red. Instead, he blocked the first three before attacking awkwardly, slicing high over the off-side. That fell safe, but three balls later he attacked again, Hazlewood this time, and picked out cover. He looks, and has looked for a while, a batsman diminished in one-day cricket. That there is no easy reason to pinpoint for his decline doesn’t make it any less real.
England do have alternatives; in Liam Dawson, a finger-spinner who bats well, they have one almost scarily similar to Moeen, albeit one who turns the ball in the opposite direction. For all that the Hampshire man has felt like an ever-present in bibs in England’s white-ball set-up in the past few years, he has only played three ODIs. He is injured right now, but by the turn of the year, it might well be time to have a look at Dawson, and if not say goodbye to Moeen altogether in ODI cricket, then prep the replacement if the worst does come.
In doing so, we should temper our expectations. Dawson is a fine cricketer, and in another era would have played a significant amount for England. But Moeen has been something else altogether, a genuine top-order option who moulded himself into a hitter, contributing significantly with the ball all the while.
And then there’s the everything else he brings. One game ago, he became England’s first Muslim captain, a landmark moment for English cricket as a while, but also a sign of the esteem in which he is held in the dressing room. Eoin Morgan speaks about him with genuine admiration and warmth, and it’s arguable that Adil Rashid might never have become the bowler he is now where it not for his best friend having an arm round his shoulder to ease him in. Those adoring fans weren’t and aren’t wrong to do so. He has been a wonderful cricketer and figurehead, and he will still be given every chance to prove he can be again.
Still, while Dawson might not ever compare to the player Moeen once was, it is increasingly feeling like Moeen won’t again either.