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Raw, loose, eternally watchable, Moeen Ali gave England what they needed

by Taha Hashim 5 minute read

Taha Hashim bids farewell to the Test career of Moeen Ali.

It’s one heck of a grab by Mike Hewitt, the photographer. The umpire’s finger rises in the background as Moeen Ali, enjoying the finest series of his Test career, celebrates a match-sealing hat-trick at The Oval against South Africa in 2017. The DRS review has gone England’s way and joy hogs the screen: there’s Jonny Bairstow lifting Moeen into the stratosphere; Joe Root jumping higher than everyone else in his first summer as Test skipper; and there’s the protagonist himself, radiating childlike glee with a beaming smile and his arms aloft.

It’s the most iconic image of Moeen’s career and it’s only right that he’s not left alone but surrounded by teammates revelling in his success. That is what Moeen was about over the course of 64 Tests, seven years, 195 wickets and five hundreds: a selfless cricketer, filling any and every role England required of him.

He arrived against Sri Lanka in the summer of 2014 as a batter who could turn his arm over, his possession of a doosra stirring more interest than the quality of his off-break. England were scrabbling around for someone to replace Graeme Swann, their greatest tweaker since Derek Underwood. After three Tests Moeen had seven expensive wickets at 55.

He was raw. His bowling, after all, had been his secondary skill at first-class level. But he was also unshackled, free from the clutches of too much theory. Having come late to the art, he gave it an unEnglish rip. That summer, he rode his talent to find a way.

Ahead of the Lord’s Test against India, a few wise words from Ian Bell and umpire Kumar Dharmasena convinced him to bowl a little faster and straighter without losing flight. The results were immediate. He finished that India series with 19 wickets at an average of just 23, his leading display in Southampton resulting in eight wickets and a 266-run win.

Over the years he never found the economy of Swann, but as a man forced to learn on the job, he should never have been expected to. What he did have was a stock ball which, when ripped with precision and cast above the eyeline, could fire its way through any man’s defences. Just go back to this February, when Virat Kohli was left dazed by a ball that dipped and spun to beat the drive and hit the stumps, proving that Moeen’s fingers still possessed that little bit of magic after an 18-month absence from the Test game. The allure of the ragging off-break didn’t control an end, and he endured difficult times in Australia, India and the UAE. Yet there are only two spinners to have taken more Test wickets for England: Underwood and Swann.

Beauty with the ball flowed into what he could do with the bat. His irresistible high-handed cover drive meant he was always going to rouse the critics when it went wrong. A final average of 28.29 is unfittingly humdrum but can be owed partly to constant shifts in his batting position. He began as a No.6 but was moved down to No.8 for the 2015 home summer as England backed Ben Stokes to come good. Later that year he opened in the UAE against Pakistan, and after ending 2016 with four centuries in the calendar year (his last coming against India at No.4 in Chennai), he began 2017 as a No.7. Dropped after a miserable Ashes winter in 2017/18, he returned against India the following summer and was promoted from No.7 to No.3 mid-match at the Ageas Bowl, allowing for Joe Root to take his favoured position at No.4.

From one to nine, he did it all and admitted in his retirement interview with ESPNcricinfo and the Guardian that he “would have loved to bat up the order more”. And yet it was by no means doom and gloom.

“If I’d [just] batted at No. 6 and not done well, I would probably have been dropped,” he added. “So being an all-rounder, being someone who would do whatever was best for the team, is the reason I’ve played 60 Tests. It’s more than I ever thought I’d play.”

Till the very end, he was a man called in to help the rest of the XI tick. In the absence of Stokes for this summer’s Tests against India, Moeen’s inclusion allowed for England to fit in four seamers and find their balance. When Jos Buttler missed the fourth Test at The Oval, Moeen took on the vice-captaincy for what was to be his final Test. In the previous Test at Headingley, from mid-off he’d advised James Anderson to pitch the ball just a little bit fuller. KL Rahul fell moments later and not long after that, India were bundled out for 78.

Things were never the same after he was denied a Test central contract in 2019, despite nine Tests before his one-off Ashes appearance that summer yielding 45 wickets at 23.13. England, perpetually befuddled by Moeen’s value, moved on to Dom Bess and Jack Leach. Yet Moeen still found a way back in, and has called it quits as England’s incumbent Test spinner.

There was little joy in his farewell as Kohli’s India did their thing in south London, but Moeen had long shown the locals what he could do. His momentous day at The Oval lives through Hewitt’s capture and will do for years to come.

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