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India v England

Plenty is to blame for England’s rotation muddle, but Moeen Ali isn’t

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read

As Moeen Ali prepares to head home after his first Test of the winter, Ben Gardner examines the factors behind a tricky situation.

So that’s that then. After a mostly beguiling, somewhat frustrating performance, Moeen Ali is off back for England. Not for long though, since he’ll be back for the T20Is.

It’s a decision which is hard to parse for a multitude of reasons. The first thing that jars is that Moeen should need a rest having played just one game on this tour so far, but that’s misleading. These prescribed breaks are for mental health, not physical, reasons and spending the start of the tour ill and in isolation would have been draining. It’s a factor that has interfered with England’s planning perhaps more than they would like to admit, and serves as some mitigation for the muddle they now find themselves in.

What’s not in question is that England are right to prioritise the wellbeing of their players. Moeen has, in the past, taken breaks for similar reasons, and it’s entirely right that he should be continued to be encouraged to do so when necessary. Some might wonder if Moeen could have hung on until the Indian Premier League auction, on Thursday, February 18, see if he gets a deal, and then, if he doesn’t, hang around until the end of T20Is before an extended spell in England. But, if Moeen does feel he needs time out now, that has to be respected.

However, there is much about how he, and the situation as a whole, has been handled that leaves plenty to be desired. Joe Root’s explanation of Moeen leaving placed the agency on him in a way that hasn’t been the case for other players. “It was not about asking him if he wanted to stay. It was a decision he chose,” the England captain said. “He wants to get out the bubble and that is absolutely fair enough. We respect where he is at.”

Contrast that to national selector Ed Smith discussing Jonny Bairstow’s absence for the first two Tests. “He completely understands that [rotation policy] and endorses it,” he said. “Whatever time you take rest, there’s always a downside because these guys – Jonny included – love playing for England. They also understand that they need their rest, so there are always two sides to it.”

For Moeen, he’s chosen to take rest, and England aren’t able to ask him to stay. For Bairstow, he endorses a decision that has effectively been taken out of his hands. Predictably, the criticism of Moeen, a favoured target for a certain section of England fans, began soon after.

Moeen has discussed this phenomenon before. “You get into a negative space, a negative frame of mind,” he said in April of last year. “You’re getting the blame for everything and everyone is looking at you. I definitely felt like, while I was playing, that if we lost the game and were 54 all out or 82 all out, it was my shot that lost it or was highlighted more. It was my mistake with the bat. It would always be my face.”

Once again, in a hefty defeat in which he was, statistically, England’s best player, it will be his face.

Still, the bigger failing is that it’s Root answering the question in the first place. He’s the Test captain, but it’s the team management – Smith, head coach Chris Silverwood and director of cricket Ashley Giles – who are ultimately responsible for their players’ wellbeing. Expecting Root, minutes after concluding four, chastening days of Test cricket, to summon the appropriate nuance and wording to explicate a complex, sensitive issue, is unreasonable.

Even if Moeen’s rest period is non-negotiable, it’s unarguable that white-ball cricket is being prioritised, and the chance to have a discussion over the new order has been lost in the need to not want to be seen questioning laudable, sensible-in-theory safeguarding policies. England will have a full-strength squad for the T20Is that follow this series, and, apart from Joe Root, no one of note is sitting out the IPL. Bilateral white-ball series and a franchise T20 competition, serving mostly as preparation for a global tournament, are being put ahead of a series which could go a long way to defining how Root’s Test captaincy is viewed. If Root were to feel, in this pivotal year for him as captain, that he’s had his team sawn off at the knees from the very start, he would be justified in doing so.

This is a T20 World Cup year, but there’s an argument to be made that there’s less need to prioritise that tournament than there was the 2019 World Cup. That tournament, in England and with a hefty PR campaign built around it, came with the promise of reviving a fanbase which had forgotten cricket existed. This winter is a chance to cement Morgan’s legacy, and to show England are the best white-ball side there’s been. But it’s also just a cricket tournament, while 2019 was something else, the summer to end all summers, and to make sure there were many more summers to follow. In terms of the ECB’s remit of growing the game, the chance to compete in a marquee Test series on free-to-air TV might not come around again for years, and England’s ability to do so has been lessened by the order of their priorities.

Taking a wider view, however, and challenging individual selection decisions or the intricacies of a rotation policy avoids the biggest issue of all, which is a global calendar that already demanded too much of its players being squashed into an even tighter window by the Covid-19 pandemic, something which has also made touring a more oppressive, draining experience than it would ordinarily be.

There was the chance for a radical rethink and restructuring, for taking a wide view of all the cricket coming up and realising it is too much, that squeezing as much juice out of our cricketers as possible is a hopelessly short-sighted solution, from an economic point of view as well as a human one. The product is lessened if international cricket is rarely, if ever, the best against the best. At some point, the fans will realise. The England team are having to make hard decisions and negotiate stumbling blocks because, fundamentally, the system is close to breaking point.

And then there’s Dom Bess, who stands to be the beneficiary of Moeen’s absence but who might not be feeling all that grateful. England knew before the series when Moeen’s rest slot was. Was there really a need to make the reasons for Bess’ exclusion so public ahead of the second Test, when rest and rotation has been cited for virtually every other selection decision?

“With him missing out the message for him moving forward is to keep working at that consistency in his game and delivering that skill time and time again and building pressure over long periods of time,” said Root ahead of the second Test. “It gives him an opportunity to take a step out of Test cricket, the harshest environment, especially in these conditions, especially against a team who play them so well and take stock and work at his game.” Those are odd words to say about a player you are planning on recalling in one Test’s time.

But central to all this, even while he’s departing, is Moeen, whose last Test match we might just have witnessed, and for whom this is simply the latest in a long line of mishandlings. Shunted up and down the order, a victim in some ways of his own agreeability, England saw fit to punish one bad Test against Australia in 2019 with his axing from the red-ball contract list. He later spoke of having fallen “out of love with the longer format”. This could be the end of the line. Jack Leach is surely now England’s first-choice spinner, and England might not need a second until the end of 2022.

In that context, the fact that, in his first Test for over 18 months, he took England’s best figures in both innings, scored more runs in the game than anyone else on his side, and finished up two hits from the world record for the fastest Test fifty, should be seen as a triumph. There might have been a few too many bad balls, but there was also one so good that Virat Kohli, one of the finest players of spin there has ever been, literally couldn’t believe he’d been bowled. The languid sixes on the final morning were a reminder of the Test-class batsman that has lain dormant.

By the end of this game, he looked something like the world-class cricketer we once knew and loved. Of this generation, perhaps only Root and Ben Stokes have given England fans more joy, played more match-defining hands. If this is to be the end, it’s some way to go. Thank you, Moeen, for the memories.

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