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England v Pakistan

Moeen Ali in his best role and his best form is a very special thing

Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 3 minute read

A rare occurrence took place during England’s 2-1 series win over Pakistan. Moeen Ali, for the first time since the 2016 World T20, batted in the top four for his country in T20 cricket.

Moeen, like the bulk of England’s T20I batting options, likes batting near the top. It’s where he bats for Worcestershire – in 2019, he averaged over 70 with a strike-rate of more than 170 in the Blast – and it’s how he’s been deployed, with success, for MS Dhoni’s Chennai Super Kings.

Given Moeen’s varying degrees of success in both disciplines and across formats, it’s easy to forget what he’s best at in T20 cricket. In Test cricket, he is, objectively, one of England’s most prolific spin bowlers of all time; his wicket-taking tally is bettered only by Underwood, Swann and Laker, all of whom possess worse career strike rates. His batting never reached the heights it should have done. Shoved up and down the order to fit into whatever England’s need were at the time, for most of his Test career he made the XI predominantly for his bowling.

In ODIs, he’s been a good No. 7 whose frugality with the ball has had merit but found less and less space in Eoin Morgan’s plans since the 2019 World Cup.

In T20 cricket, Moeen is a world-class hitter. According to CricViz, as of May 1 this year, only four players in IPL history had a higher strike rate against spin. His strike rate for England since the 2016 World T20 (154.93) is the best of anyone to have batedt more than 10 times for England.

When he fails – like he did in the series finale – he fails quickly. He doesn’t eat up balls and has the capacity to take the game rapidly away from opponents – that is a very handy combination. Very few players in the world are capable of the sort of momentum-shifting knocks he played in the second T20I at Headingley, where he blasted 36 off just 16 balls. In four of the last five innings in which he’s faced 10 or more balls for England, he’s finished with a strike rate north of 180. When he gets in, he makes the most of it. When he gets out, it rarely hurts his side. Given how low he often bats for England, it’s easy to forget that he is generally batting out of place in the England side. His bowling is a bonus, really.

This isn’t to say that he should be a shoo-in for the T20 World Cup opener, England are more than spoilt for choice. But to get the best out of him, you ideally want him sitting somewhere in that top five. For so long England have used Moeen to suit their own needs, to mask their frailties, to plug gaps that need plugging. Hitting big in T20 cricket is Moeen’s greatest skill across formats and disciplines – when he’s on song there are very few in the world who are capable of what he can do. You wonder what could be possible if England adapted to build a team around Moeen’s strengths, rather than ask Moeen to adapt to England’s weaknesses. For the first time in a while they veered towards the former against Pakistan. If they continue to do that, it could be a very special thing.

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