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India v England

Moeen Ali, Dom Bess and the unanswerable question

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

Ben Gardner examines the selection conundrum over which of Dom Bess or Moeen Ali should be first choice for England in their Test series against India.

In normal times, there wouldn’t even be a debate. Dom Bess has played each of England’s last eight Tests, with steadily improving results culminating in 12 wickets at 21.25 in a 2-0 win over Sri Lanka. Moeen Ali hasn’t played a first-class match of any description, let alone a Test, since September 2019, with his last Test appearance seeing him leak just under 4.5 runs per over in the third innings, a passage which ultimately saw a handy first-innings advantage turn into a thumping Australia win.

Even looking at their overall career records, the equation leans heavily in favour of Bess. He’s 10 years younger than Moeen and averages three runs fewer per wicket than him with the ball. His batting average of 25.50 isn’t far off the senior man’s 28.97 either. Given Ben Stokes’ return will likely push Jos Buttler down to No.7, England would want the extra bowling depth in any case.

Moeen’s bowling average in Asia worsens, to 37.08, with his record on the 2016/17 tour of India eyewatering, with 10 wickets costing 64.90 runs apiece. Bess has played only those two Sri Lanka Tests on the continent, but further evidence of his proficiency overseas comes via his first Test five-for, taken in South Africa just over a year ago. Looked at through a rational, traditional cricketing lens, there’s no argument to be had. Bess must play.

The thing is, the twin facets of the Covid-19 pandemic and the fact that the conversation involves Moeen mean much conventional thinking goes out the window. Rarely have a player’s numbers told you less about them. At most, you can learn he’s inconsistent, as you have to be to score five Test tons and take five Test five-fors and still average under 30 and over 35 in each discipline, but even then, Moeen’s undulating fortunes aren’t your standard ‘one game he’s on, the next he’s off’ fluctuations.

Instead, he’s the ultimate form player, an all-rounder who has averaged over 40 with the bat in four different series and under 25 with the ball in six, but never done both at the same time. In between his latest recall and dropping he claimed more Test wickets than any other bowler in the world, and yet still lost rhythm so dramatically through the World Cup that England had no choice to look elsewhere.

There are theories that attempt to explain Moeen’s mercurial returns, especially with the ball, with which he performs significantly better at home than away, in contrast to most spinners. According to previous England head coach Trevor Bayliss, Moeen prefers to not be England’s No.1 spinner. “It probably takes a little bit of pressure off him,” he said after Moeen had taken 10 wickets in a 2017 Test which  featured Liam Dawson as England’s ‘No.1’ tweaker. “He sees himself as a batter number one and a spinner second. And I suppose that doesn’t mean he’s still not our best spinner but his No.1 job is to bat.”

You wonder if what Moeen really needs is not to not be the main spinner, but to not be the bowler who has to contain, as he rarely has been in England, where a plethora of seam-bowling all-rounders means there’s little holding up of an end to do. He has always been an attacking spinner, and while his average might be middling, his strike-rate is right up there. Only Graeme Swann, of England tweakers with more than 100 wickets since the Second World War, took wickets more frequently than Moeen. The one overseas tour where he did have proper success was when partnered with Jack Leach in Sri Lanka, with the Tauntonian’s parsimony allowing Moeen to bowl more aggressively than he ever had before in an England shirt.

In India last time, Moeen was the only finger-spinner at England’s disposal with more than 10 caps to his name, and had to take on a holding role that didn’t hugely suit him. Bowling in tandem with Leach might give him a better chance of succeeding.

Still, none of that is meant to suggest that Moeen should play instead of Bess, and it all presupposes that the most important factor is in place: that his confidence is high.

This is where these strange new circumstances come in to render any speculation pretty much moot. Moeen’s first-class sabbatical through 2020 was enforced by being part of England’s white-ball bubbles, and his positive Covid-19 test meant he played no part in a Sri Lanka series which could have seen him show where he’s at. The pandemic also rules out the possibility of any proper competitive preparation while also throwing a cloud of mystery over the net sessions taking their place.

Instead of a legion of journalists gleaning what they can and offering it forward for the world to see, all that’s available are the stills and footage forthcoming from the England media team. To be clear, there is little that could be done to improve this situation in the short term. But it does make trying to figure out where Moeen is at nigh on impossible.

It’s true that Moeen at his best is a more valuable cricketer with both bat and ball than Bess. It’s also true that, as the record shows, ‘Moeen at his best’ is a state of events that comes around too rarely to be counted upon. And there’s no way, from the outside, of knowing what Moeen England have in their hands right now.

So come Friday, if England pick Moeen, we might just have to trust that from what they’ve seen, he’s ready to be the player we’ve all seen that he can be once more. If they don’t, we’ll be left with the hope that one day he will be again. This time, we’ll just have to take it on faith.

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