“Moeen Ali is back, and it is clear that he belongs here”
A crucial 40, 5 for 63, 4 for 71.
In the middle of all this, he was also sent in at No 3 in the second innings. Why not? After all, he had batted at No 3 for Warwickshire just a week earlier against Yorkshire in Scarborough and had hit a double hundred.
The move had not come off. He had fallen cheaply. But it had allowed captain Joe Root to come in at No 4 and look more assured than he has in recent times in his less preferred No 3 position. Indeed, Moeen Ali was considered the one man capable enough to be pushed up that high in the order, even if purely in a makeshift capacity.
It did come as a surprise to many when Moeen was not selected for the series. What compounded the vexation was that the man chosen as the spinner was Adil Rashid. The latter had already voiced his reluctance to play the red-ball versions of the game. It was probably the look on Virat Kohli’s face as he was bowled by the leggie during the Headingley ODI that sealed his place in the side. England knew that Kohli was the man to get if they were going to win the series. And Rashid seemed to have some sort of a clue about getting him out.
Moeen was perhaps not that surprised. Neither was he too disappointed! He knew he had had a torrid time Down Under. In fact, he voiced that he should have been sent to the county grounds earlier, to get his game back in order, to get his thinking sorted, his head uncluttered.
The 219 and the second innings six-wicket haul in that Scarborough match meant that his claims could be overlooked no longer. England did include him in the side for the fourth Test, although with some peculiar selection choices. Moeen came in to replace Ollie Pope, an off-spinning all-rounder for a genuine batsman. And with Johnny Bairstow sent up the order, he was slotted to bat at No 7.
Replacing a batsman Moeen did his bit. Coming in at 69 for 5, he steadied the ship with Sam Curran, and essayed an important 40, adding 81 for the seventh wicket with the young Surrey all-rounder. And soon after that, he was in the thick of things as a match-winner.
It was evident right from the moment he was brought on that Moeen was far more in tune with the concept of bowling in the longest format than Rashid had been in the three previous Tests.
The leggie had sent down 12 overs at Edgbaston, 9 overs in the first innings in Trent Bridge, and had not got to bowl at Lord’s. It was only when the Indians were on their way to a big score in the second innings at Nottingham, had he been given an extended bowl, amounting to 27 overs. He had taken 7 wickets in all. Here he bowled 14 more overs, without adding to his tally.
Moeen bowled 42 overs in this match itself, picking up 9 wickets.
He found the rough immediately on arrival at the bowling crease. In the first innings, he ran through the lower order with plenty of relishes. It was a five-for.
In the first innings he managed to bowl 61% of the balls in the rough. As a result, he spun a web of confusion around the Indian batsmen, brought up on a steady diet of such pitches and the turning ball. Ravichandran Ashwin, arguably the best off-spinner in the world, could pitch less than 50% of his deliveries in the offending zone.
In the second innings, India were starting to look the favourites with Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane stitching together a brilliant partnership. At 123 for 3, with half the required runs already obtained, England were falling behind in this riveting Test match, starting to become desperate for a breakthrough.
Moeen had beaten the bat on occasions. Loud appeals had been rejected on field, decisions had been overturned by the television umpire.
But then he struck. The ball turned, popped up a bit, and it went off Kohli’s glove into the hands of short-leg. The huge, huge wicket.
Rishabh Pant hit him for a huge six, essayed another lofted drive for four. Moeen tempted him with another tossed up delivery, the field pushed deep. The youngster, not yet schooled in the merits of the middle path, succumbed. The first innings had seen him eke out a painstaking 29-ball duck. Here, he tried to clear the boundary again, this time over deep cover. The man was waiting. The match had turned.
And then it was the fighting knock of Rahane that came to an end when he went too far back, and the ball, turning in from the rough, beat the bat and struck him on the backfoot.
Up went the finger. The review was ineffectual. The resistance was over.
Moeen ended with 4 for 71 off 26 overs. There could be no other Man of the Match.
A spectacular return for a man who engineers critical turns in the game, but most often remains inconspicuous.
At Southampton, he has played the Indian side twice. His wickets tally in those two Tests read 17. He has done the winning turn in both these games.
If his omission was surprising, his return was overdue, and the nature of his performance was beyond mind-boggling.
Perhaps the break from the Test side was warranted. Perhaps it did him a world of good.
But his rightful place in the side should never be in doubt.
51 Tests, 2544 runs, 142 wickets. The bowling average still needs improvement, but he has the uncanny knack of spinning England to victories against some of the best players of spin in the world.
Moeen Ali is back, and it is clear that he belongs here.