The Curious Case of Moeen Ali

Sometimes when contributing to a blog, you need to write an article that you would really prefer not to. It is safe to say that this is one such occasion, as I’m going to call for the unthinkable, put my head on the line and say that Moeen Ali should be dropped from the Test side this summer.

I know, I feel like I’m clubbing a baby seal here, but please do hear me out on this one. Moeen is without doubt one of the most likeable and selfless players in the English set up. He has been pushed up and down the order by the England selectors more than I’ve had hot dinners (I believe he has batted every position from opener to number 9). He put his head on the line back in 2014, when England asked him to be their main spinner, when he was at best a part time bowler for his county. Not once has Moeen ever complained about the constant shifting of his role within the England team and that clearly shows that he is a selfless individual, one who is exceptionally proud to play for his country and hence why it is difficult for me to demand for him to be dropped.

Moeen currently averages 35 with the bat and 42 with the ball at this time of writing and averaged 45 with the bat and 46 with the ball over the last 12 months (before our resident stats expert Simon picks me up on this one). So some may question why I would like such a valuable team player as Moeen to be dropped, especially when he scored a hundred in the last Test in India. However, I’m sure we all remember Shane Warne’s observation about Monty Panesar some years ago “that Panesar, rather than having played 33 Tests, had merely played his first one 33 times.” Some felt it was overly harsh, I actually happened to agree on this point at the time. I also feel this quip should also apply to Moeen with both his batting and bowling. Moeen, whilst it’s wonderful to watch his batting in full flow, is just as likely to hole out to cover with a slightly uppish cover drive or to advance down the wicket a whack one down mid-on’s throat. He has been doing this since his Test Debut back in 2014, some 37 Test matches ago. There hasn’t seemed to be any deep thought about his batting and why he consistently gets out playing loose, wafty shots. Perhaps he is of the mindset that ‘that’s the way he plays, so why change when it’s bought him success in the past’ and that could be a fair point. I mean I remember another English batsman who came onto the scene in 2005 and played exciting, attacking and sometimes fairly brainless cricket; however this individual averaged a whole lot more than 35 in his career playing ‘his way’. Unfortunately the said individual liked to whistle when he got out, so that was that for him then.

I could however, live with the fact that Moeen is as likely to nick a wide one to third slip when looking to save the game as he is as likely to launch a sumptuous cover drive to the boundary that should have an R rating to it. I could live with this, if the rest of his game was in order; however it simply isn’t due to one glaring weakness that sorts out the county pro from the Test pro, the short ball. It’s not that Moeen can’t play the short ball, it’s the fact that Moeen really really can’t play the short ball. One only needs to look at the recent series in India, when he bounced out on slow low wickets both in the Test series and then latterly in the 3rd ODI against a 40 over old, soft white ball. The tangle that Moeen gets himself into when facing the bouncer is two fold. He doesn’t seem to have the ability to duck and weave against the short ball, something that Atherton in his prime had a fantastic ability to do, nor does he have the natural shot appreciation to deposit it into the stand such as Ricky Ponting did. This leaves Moeen in some halfway house, where he still has to play the hook but it is likely that he’ll either top edge it or place it down deep square legs throat. It sort of reminds me of Yuvraj Singh’s inability to make it in international cricket, he had all the shots in the book, but as soon as word went round that he didn’t like it by his nose, then every fast bowler worth his salt tried to put it there. We only have to see the results of the 2011 series in England, which pretty much ended his career as a Test batsman. This upcoming year, we have a strong and quick South African fast bowling attack coming to England, followed by the Ashes on quick and bouncy Australian wickets. I dread to think what the Hazlewood and Starc will do to him at the Gabba and WACA, but what I do know for sure, there aren’t going to be that many pitched up deliveries for him to cover drive.

Now this could be glossed over somewhat, if Moeen was a premier spin bowler, but sadly most people now agree that he is what we thought he was in 2014, a part time bowler trying his best to cover England’s empty cupboard of spin bowling options. It is often true that when a new bowler comes into Test cricket, he has a bit of a bounce effect, in that the batsmen haven’t seen them bowl too much and quite often there are a few early wickets on offer as batsmen have yet to work them out. As with anything though in international cricket, coaches soon go through hours of video footage analyzing their technique, their weaknesses and where to target them and hence only high quality bowlers will flourish on this stage. This was true in 2014 when the Indian batsmen kept getting out to Moeen, by whacking him into the stands. However Moeen has now played 37 Test matches as England’s main spin weapon, and it would be fair to assume that he would be able to improve in that time; however sadly, I believe he has actually regressed as a bowler. He has all too often been easy pickings for opposition batsmen, milked around for singles at every opportunity and then waiting for the bad ball (which is often just around the corner) to put away to the boundary, thus making it impossible to build any pressure on the opposing side. Sure Moeen might bowl the odd Jaffa, but that doesn’t help too much when you’re constantly going at 4.5 runs an over. I might be being a tad unfair on Moeen’s bowling, as Graeme Swann aside, we have never been blessed with great spin bowlers since I’ve been following the cricket in depth. We won the 2005 with Ashley Giles as our main bowler, who wasn’t blessed with the most talent of an international Test spinner; however the one thing Giles could do was tie up an end and let our battery of quick’s steam in from the other end with an attacking field, because their main spinner wasn’t leaking 80 runs a day. This is something that unfortunately Moeen is simply unable to do.

It seems folly to me, to head to Australia where pitches aren’t exactly conducive to spin bowling with a part time bowler who can’t keep the runs down. I doubt Dave Warner or Steve Smith are losing any sleep about facing him in the middle. Even with England’s stocks of spin bowling being so diminished, surely it would make more sense to take a specialist spin bowler rather than a part time spinner that has regressed? The likes of Leach, Rayner, Rashid or even Mason Crane might not have that much better results in the short term, but I would hope that they would learn a lot from the experience and hence improve as their experience of International cricket grows. After 37 Test’s, I just don’t see how Moeen will improve his bowling sufficiently enough to be of an international standard.

In my own humble opinion, Moeen needs to focus on improving his batting, certainly against the short ball to lock down the number 5 position on his batting alone or somehow for his bowling to dramatically click for him to start the summer in the Test side. England had a preference for bits and pieces cricketers in the 90’s and we all know how that worked out for them then, I simply don’t see a place for them in a current Test side.

Right, I’ve got my tin hat on..