Moeen Ali is the personification of the term ‘underrated’ in cricket.
Vacillating in his role between a middle order batsman who can bowl a few overs of off-spin to the official off-spinner of England because-they-have-no-one-better who can bat usefully down the order, he has played an add-on part in the side over the last few years. Sometimes he even betrays an impression of being confused about his own function in the team.
Why, even Joe Root, the new captain of England, went on record saying that Moeen’s bowling was ‘add-on’. And that followed with his being sent in to bat at No 7. If we remember, Moeen was forced up the order to no. 4 at Chennai the last time England played a Test match, mainly due to the awful failure of top order men. He had responded with scores of 146 and 44.
Let me add here that Root has had a magnificent match, with some rather striking captaincy apart from his phenomenal first innings 190. There have been few captains of modern times to possess the refreshing approach of thinking for himself. Few England captains would have bowled Moeen and Liam Dawson in tandem so early in the fourth innings at Lord’s, whatever be the state of the pitch or the match. Few would have had a man just in front of a shortish point for Hashim Amla where Ben Stokes almost caught him. And very few in the world would do away with the silly point with the score reading 6 down for next to nothing, and place fielders in more astute positions like a short gully and so on.
So, whatever I write about Root’s words about Moeen should be taken in context. A splendid job that he did as the new skipper, it was not the best show of confidence in someone who can be justifiably called a vital cog in the England team.
But Moeen did not just turn grumpy and sulk. He began by coming in at a critical juncture, at 190 for 5 in the first innings, and constructed a serene 87. He and Root added 177, a partnership that took the game away from the spirited South Africans.
Following this, he produced the best innings and match figures of his career. The 4 for 59 in first innings was crucial because his wickets were of the vital men, Elgar, Amla, Bavuma and the dangerous Philander. This bowling was not ‘add-on’, but very much the incisive weapon.
In the second innings, he ran through the side, with 6 for 53. This included 5 in successive overs. 87 in the first innings and 10 for the match. There were two sharp catches along the way as well. If this is ‘add-on’ bowling, England has the best attack in the world and some more.
Sonny Ramadhin did it in 1950. Roy Tattersall in 1951. The first of the two used to mix his spin, turning the ball both ways, bowling the orthodox off-break alongside the genuine leg-breaks. The latter was a medium pacer who later switched to bowling unconventional off-spin, with high arm action and not short of slipping in a couple of cutters every now and then.
That makes Moeen the first genuine off-spinner to claim a ten-for at Lord’s.
He was never a bits and pieces cricketer. The unbeaten 108 against Sri Lanka in the fourth innings at Leeds, in his very second Test, underlined his splendid temperament. And this was not the first time he ran through a side either, he had done so against the vaunted Indian line-up at Southampton in 2014, with figures of 6 for 57 in the second innings.
Be it his 7 wickets at Durban or the unbeaten 155 against Sri Lanka at Chester le Street, he has been the architect of victories with both bat and ball. Yet, the recognition as a special force to reckon with has been slow in coming. Perhaps it was due to the juxtaposition of two factors. His bowling not being consistent for much of the last couple of years, especially after all the issues surrounding the legality of the doosra. And then there was the rise of Stokes as the serious all-rounder in the side.
But perhaps this particular just-concluded Test will be the moment in history when the cricketing fraternity will raise their glasses to toast Moeen. In a significant coincidence, this was the Test in which he went past both 2000 runs and 100 wickets. That places Moeen in a very select group of 7 English cricketers, of whom the great Yorkshireman Wilfred Rhodes is the only other spinner.
The remaining men in the club are Ian Botham, Trevor Bailey, Tony Greig, Andrew Flintoff and Stuart Broad. Incidentally, Moeen is the fastest to break into this group in terms of Tests played. Let us dwell a bit further on this to comprehend that the man is really special. Some of the men whom he has left behind in this race to 2000 runs and 100 wickets include the super duo of Garry Sobers and Jacques Kallis, and the fabulous four of Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev and Richard Hadlee.
That makes you pause and think.
This Test has also seen Moeen haul his batting average further over 35 and pull his bowling average down into the 30s.
These are not exceptional numbers. Sobers and Kallis were much better batsmen, all the others mentioned above were much better bowlers. But, 2021 runs and 108 wickets in 38 Tests underline Moeen’s immense value to the side. Additionally, as we have seen in this recent Test, he has a knack of picking up the best batsmen of the opposition. Perhaps they don’t take him seriously, perhaps he has genuine guile. Whatever be the reason, the results cannot be disputed.
What helps this all-rounder succeed is his absolute awareness of his own limitations. Moeen does not perish in trying to do things he is not capable of. But he is constantly trying to polish his different crafts.
He has seldom bowled better than he did at Lord’s, seldom bowled slower through the air with such confidence and effect. He has seldom looked more solid at the crease than he has done this year.
Prediction, as I maintain, is perilous in cricket. But I can wager with confidence that down the years he will evolve further into one of the bigger names to have played the game.
Underrated he may be, people may still scoff at his abilities as an off-spinner. However, Moeen Ali is definitely a fantastic all-rounder and a true asset to the English team.