@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read
As with any retirement, Moeen Ali’s exit from the Test arena has led to debate and assessment over where he ranks as a cricketer.
With Moeen, the job is harder than it is with most. His overall numbers – a batting average of 28 and a bowling average of 37 – suggest a mediocre player, one perhaps lucky to play as many as 68 Tests. But rarely have those two figures painted so misleading a picture. While Moeen is rightly regarded as an unfulfilled talent in some respects, that’s only because he did enough to be considered one of England’s greatest ever matchwinners, on a number of metrics.
The most obvious is the rate at which he hoovered up Player of the Match awards, gongs which go, by design, to the player who has had the biggest impact on each Test. Moeen has won six POTM awards in 64 Tests, a rate of just below one every 10 Tests. Considering only those with three or more POTM awards for England, it’s the sixth best rate of anyone.
Those ahead of him are all established as greats of English Test cricket: Kevin Pietersen, Graeme Swann, Joe Root, Ian Botham and Ben Stokes. When you consider those below him on the list – the likes of Alastair Cook, James Anderson and Stuart Broad among them – it’s even more impressive.
Worldwide, since his debut, he’s right up there in the POTM award stakes. Those with more POTM awards in that time are arguably THE five greats of the modern era: Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Steve Smith, along with Root and Stokes.
Most of his matchwinning work has come with ball in hand, and he’s especially valuable when the pressure is on and the result is up for grabs. In the fourth innings of England wins, only Broad and Anderson have claimed more wickets. Overall, his record in such circumstances reads 55 wickets at 19, with three five-wicket hauls, accounting for more than a quarter of his entire career tally. His record in wins full stop is excellent, with 111 wickets at 23.
His great strength as a spinner was his strike-rate, and this feeds into what made him such a brilliant matchwinner. When the game needed to be put on pause, he didn’t excel, as an economy rate of 3.66 attests to. But when the moment was there to be seized, he was nearly unparalleled. Among England spinners with 50 or more wickets since the Second World War, only Jack Leach and Graeme Swann have a better strike-rate. At home, among those with 20 or more wickets in that time period, Moeen’s is the best, bar none. He almost fulfilled the role of a leg-spinner but as a finger-spinner, going for runs but bowling balls that could get the best batters out, even on surfaces not offering too much assistance
While only one of Moeen’s hundreds came in wins, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a match-winner with the bat too. This is best shown simply by recalling some of his most impactful knocks, which took England from precarious positions to dominant ones. Take his unbeaten 86 in the third Test against Pakistan in 2016. He came in with England effectively 179-5 on the fourth evening, but scored his runs at such a rate that by the time Cook declared, England led by 343, and victory was within reach. Or consider his 77 against Australia in the first Test of the 2015 Ashes, when a belligerent, balletic 77 crafted a 400-plus total from a platform of 280-5. Or there was his 66-ball 75 in the decider against South Africa in 2017, Moeen’s best all-round series in Test cricket, in an innings in which no one else made 50.
Moeen wasn’t the most reliable cricketer, and he gave England fans plenty of reasons to feel frustrated. But few have won as many games for England, and fewer still have done it with his grace, poise, and flair.