“From moving up and down the order to being sidelined for Liam Dawson, Adil Rashid and Jack Leach, England have struggled to identify a role for Moeen Ali in the past”
A golden duck in the first innings from no.3 compensated by ripping spell of 4/66 in 21 overs of hard toil in the sapping heat. No, we aren’t talking about Jacques Kallis and the all-rounder that set the standards in the modern era.
This is Moeen Ali, your everyday part-time bowler with a golden arm…err, NO! It would be downright disgraceful to call England’s seventh most successful spinner of all-time a part-timer. With 149 wickets in 53 Tests, Moeen is no Muralitharan. Neither is he a Graeme Swann, arguably one of the finest tweakers England cricket has ever produced. What he does, though, is take wickets and take big wickets.
At Galle, Sri Lanka had just lost Dinesh Chandimal to a peach from Adil Rashid, perhaps the most talented spinner among the trio in the side but in no way, the best, to be reduced to 115/5. Angelo Mathews, had played the least amount of false shots until then in the whole Test match. The former Lankan skipper was so assured in defence and footwork that the best ploy for England at the stage seemed to be working on dismissing the rest.
Moeen, though, has a knack of working over the best. Among his prestigious scalps in Test cricket, Dean Elgar (five times in 8 matches), Virat Kohli (thrice), Steven Smith (thrice), David Warner (four times), Misbah-ul-Haq (thrice) and Cheteshwar Pujara (twice) make several appearances. The off-spinner has a way against the most elite batsmen in Test cricket, by hook or by crook.
Against Mathews, Moeen had a definite plan and executed it to perfection. In the one over before tea, Moeen landed the ball on the rough, gave it a lot of air and forced Mathews to defend tentatively. The plan was so obvious that he might as well have screamed to the Lankan that he was looking for an inside edge onto the pads.
In the first ball after tea, Moeen flighted the ball a bit more, tossing it up above Mathews’ eye-line and forced an edge to the short leg fielder. The plan was evident, yet Ali had his man in executing the plan immaculately. No, a part-timer couldn’t have done that. Neither could he have grabbed 4/66 on a surface where England’s so-called front-line spinners, Jack Leach and Adil Rashid, looked decent yet less threatening than Ali himself.
The planning and precision in the execution of Moeen Ali can be understood from the fact that not one of his deliveries against right-handers at Galle landed in line with the stumps. He kept hitting the rough over and over until the batsman made an error. The pitch was dry enough to offer prodigious turn and there were enough suggestions from the Lankan batsmen to encourage Moeen to persist with his plan.
CricViz’s graph suggests just how immaculate Moeen Ali was with his bowling on Wednesday. He was relentless in attack and gave little away to the Lankan batsmen waiting to nudge that off-break through the vacant mid-wicket or square-leg area. Any shot on the leg-side against Moeen was replete with danger. The forward short-leg in place was always in play as was the lone slip fielder. A perfect t length and line meant every time a shot with the turn was attempted, the batsmen put themselves in danger of not reading the revolutions on the ball well enough.
It is this apparent minuscule of a possibility that the English spinner exploited day in day out. His success in England stems from consistency too. But if batsmen aren’t treating him as a frontline spinner yet, they really should. Dhananjaya de Silva’s ill-advised paddle shot against Moeen was a perfect example of a batsman ridiculing his impact only to fall prey to his wile.
From moving up and down the order to being sidelined for Liam Dawson, Adil Rashid and Jack Leach, England have struggled to identify a role for Moeen Ali in the past. But have they been looking at the right place? As a batting all-rounder, Moeen might not always be what you want him to be. For a moment can England reverse the lens and look at him as a bowling all-rounder? There isn’t a better thinking spinner in the country and with minimal skills and excellent execution, Moeen Ali has stamped his place down on the side. Can England acknowledge his presence as a frontline spinner yet?