The Curious Case of Moeen Ali: Part Deux

For such an affable chap, Moeen is a rather divisive cricketer.  His batting and bowling veer from the brilliant to the dreadful; opinions tend to be fairly fixed about his value, and yet even when criticised, it tends to be somewhat reluctant.  He didn’t have a good tour of India with the ball, leading Sean to write a piece he described as being like clubbing a baby seal, yet given his outstanding performance in the first Test against South Africa with both bat and ball, it surely puts to bed any questions about his merit.

Well, perhaps not.  The question marks over him are the same ones that have been there since he first came into the team three years ago, namely that his batting isn’t quite good enough to hold down a front line place, and his bowling isn’t near good enough to be the primary Test spinner.  He has certainly developed as a player over that time, and it would be a harsh critic who would say he hasn’t improved, but the question as to whether he has improved enough – one outstanding contribution fresh in the memory notwithstanding – is still a live one.

There has to also be a certain degree of awareness about the aesthetics of the matter.  Moeen in full flow with the bat is simply gorgeous to watch, more reminiscent of David Gower than almost anyone else who has played since.  No one would argue Moeen is remotely as good a batsman as Gower, but there is a similarity in style there, the way both will make any watcher purr with delight at an exquisitely timed cover drive, and gnash teeth with frustration at an ill disciplined waft outside off stump.  It’s both a positive and a negative, and it very much depends on the character and preconceptions of the observer.  Some will make allowances and forgive the flaws because of the intrinsic beauty on show, others will criticise the nature of the dismissals as irresponsible.  As this blog has mentioned before, there is a strange mentality whereby being out to defensive shots is permissible, yet messing up an attacking one is worthy of venom.  It’s the exact opposite to how batsmen tend to think of it, for being dismissed to a defensive shot is an admission of defeat to the bowler, and getting out to an attacking one an occupational hazard.

So allowances are made for being great to watch.  Or he’s criticised more than he should be because he gets out in apparently lazy fashion.  Strokeplayers everywhere have always suffered the same divergent opinions.

His batting is easier to assess these days.  A career average of 35.45 isn’t terrible, but nor is it of the top level.  Yet (and this will crop up again) with him statistics can tend to obscure what he is and what he brings to a side rather than illuminate it.  For he’s a player for whom the term “stat mining” could have been coined; they can be used to defend him or to criticise him, and both have validity.  Certainly his batting has improved at Test level over the last 18 months, raising his overall average from a sub-par high twenties to its current level.  Even in India, where the overall batting line up consistently failed, he tended to be one of the brighter spots.  More interestingly, his relative recent success has been done from a settled position at number seven in the order.  With only 8 Tests in that role, the sample is too small to be too meaningful, but it does reinforce a perception that his counterattacking style is exceptionally valuable down the order.  Either way, three hundreds in those 8 Tests and an average of 78.77 is quite startling, and of immense value to the team if he can maintain even anything thirty percentage points below that contribution level.  The trouble is that he was also markedly less successful one place lower in the order.  This could be psychological to some extent – bat in the tail, bat like a tailender – but it’s also true that in that position he ran out of batting partners often, and was frequently out late on trying to hit some extra runs.  One place higher mitigates that to some extent, but also provides caution in placing too much value on the impressive statistics.

However it might be statistically, Moeen is unquestionably an exceptionally dangerous customer in the lower middle order.  His rate of scoring is destructive, and he can take a match away from the opposition in a session.  Perhaps not to quite the same degree as his team mate one place higher – Ben Stokes – but he’s certainly one to fear when he gets in.

If his batting is now operating at a level where he could arguably get in on merit solely as a batsman, his bowling is much more difficult to quantify.  He has repeatedly said that he considers himself a part time off spinner rather than a front line one, and post Lords Trevor Bayliss made the interesting observation that if that was how Moeen wanted to internalise it, then they were quite happy to let him.  The raw figures are that he has taken 108 wickets in 38 Tests (not too bad) at an average of 39.35 (not so good).  Yet even this needs some further analysis.

Firstly, it has to be taken into account that England fans have been spoiled by having Graeme Swann for several years.  England spinners over the last 40 years have not operated at anything like the level he did.  To put this into context, Swann had a Test bowling average of 29.96, by far the best since the days of Derek Underwood.  Of the other bowlers in living memory who have played a reasonable number of matches, they tend to group around the same kind of level, John Emburey averaged 38.40, Phil Edmonds 34.18, Phil Tufnell 37.68, Ashley Giles 40.60 and Monty Panesar 34.71.  Naturally enough, times, conditions and opposition are all extremely variable for all those players and over all the years, but those were the most successful England spinners in their eras, and none of them have a record that would make anyone sit up and take special notice.  For the reality is that England only rarely  produce exceptional spinners, and Moeen’s record in that list doesn’t stand out as being particularly poor.

There’s more there too, for when it comes to comparing strike rates Emburey’s was 104.7, Edmonds’ 96.2, Tufnell’s 93.2, Giles’ 85.1 and Panesar’s 74.7.  Swann had 60.1 and Moeen Ali 63.6.  Once again, different times and styles of play need to be taken into account here – the strike rate of the bowlers in the 1980s wasn’t thought of as being particularly awful for the time for a start, but the fact that Moeen’s compares well in this regard even to a bowler as well thought of and recent as Panesar is at least food for thought.  It tends to imply what most would think about him anyway – he takes wickets, he bowls some exceptionally good deliveries, but he’s also a little inconsistent and doesn’t maintain control as well as perhaps we would hope.  What Swann was particularly good at was that he was able to play a dual role: a very good defensive spinner in the first half of the game, and an excellent attacking bowler once the pitch began to deteriorate.

Comparative statistics against different sides and in different eras can be fundamentally misleading, yet what can be said is that Moeen’s performance level is not a huge variation from the mean.  In some areas it is better, in others worse.  In some circumstances he has played worse opponents, in others better.  And of course the nature of Test cricket has changed somewhat in any case.

Perhaps the most critical point here is that Australia spent years discarding spinner after spinner for the crime of not being Shane Warne.  Swann wasn’t at that level of course, but he was the best England had produced for many a year.  To hark back to him and hope that England have a plethora of ready-made, equally good replacements to call on would be unreasonable and a triumph of hope over reality.  It is quite simply the case that England do not currently have a finger spinner who would do significantly better.  A little better perhaps, or a little worse, but nothing that would radically change the spinning position.  This doesn’t alter the truth that Moeen had a poor series with the ball in India, nor that he’s anything but the first to suffer that rather chastening experience.  He’s certainly unlikely to terrify many teams in their own backyard, and in Australia later this year he probably won’t do terrifically well either.  Neither did Swann for that matter though, and he was much superior.

One of the strengths of having him in the team as a bowler is his batting, and along with Stokes and Bairstow as all rounders, this creates additional spots for others to take who are more specialist than him.  It could be argued Moeen the bowler is a free option, and a bonus.  This is important because of the qualification above that there aren’t any substantially better finger spinners out there.  That is because of course there is a leg spinner who could and perhaps should have a claim on a spot in the side, and as first choice spin bowler.   Adil Rashid performed markedly better in India than Moeen did, yet was heavily criticised and discarded summarily for failing to be outstanding in one of the most difficult places to tour for a spinner anywhere.  Yet the mistreatment of Adil Rashid shouldn’t be used as a stick with which to beat Moeen, they are two separate issues.  The relatively free pass given to the batsmen for their failures is as much an example of the unreasonableness of the media attack on Adil Rashid as anything to do with Moeen.

Moeen Ali is a flawed cricketer.  There’s no question about that, but perhaps it is time to focus on what he can do rather than what he can’t.  He fulfills an unusual role in recent England cricket history, and he might even be thought of as something of a bits and pieces cricketer, not quite at the desired level in either discipline.  But he also allows the specialists to be included in the side and in business speak can be said to “add value” to the England team.  Berating him for failing to live up to exceptional standards is pointless unless there are alternatives who could take over and improve the side.  Ashley Giles was no one’s idea of a top level spin bowler, but he performed a role in the team for a number of years, and the side was stronger with him doing that.  Moeen does the same thing while at the same time being a much better cricketer, and one who can and does win matches from time to time.   There are worse justifications for a player.