| Moeen Ali |
London: Moeen Ali is known as “the beard that is feared” on T-shirts sold at Worcestershire CCC but that was based on his prowess as a batsman.
Now that his bowling has taken top billing the slogan perhaps needs to be changed to “the bristle that brings dismissal” in recognition of his burgeoning skills as a spinner.
Since his debut against Sri Lanka at Lord’s in early June, when he took one wicket with his looping off-breaks, Moeen has become a spin bowler of substance. Not many playing in just their second series will have taken 19 wickets in four Tests against India, a major reason why England are 2-1 up with one to play.
The secret, as with most improvements, is not really a secret at all being a mixture of hard work, growing confidence and a realisation that adjustments had to be made when bowling to Test batsmen. They are all linked, one feeding the other until the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Suddenly, England’s spin problems, perceived to be so acute when Graeme Swann retired mid-Ashes, appear to have been solved by a short man with a very long beard.
Speaking to those who know both the man and the bowler, Moeen was always likely to improve once he got into the England team. During his Test debut, Paul Farbrace, England’s assistant coach, said Moeen had the self-possession of a man who had played 20 Tests, not one.
It is the rate of improvement of his bowling which has surprised. But then this is someone whose mind is eager for knowledge, be it to improve his cricket or his understanding of complex issues such as Gaza, whose cause he highlighted when he wore wristbands during the third Test in Southampton.
As a Muslim, his religion is clearly important to him, though there are those who feel he advertises it too overtly by wearing his beard as long as he does. Fortunately, most cricket fans are a tolerant bunch eager to embrace English excellence and character from wherever it springs and, since settling in to the team, Moeen has been cheered at every turn.
Confidence is at the heart of big improvements like his and that has come largely because Alastair Cook, his captain, can trust him now he is able to do a job even when the ball is not turning.
Clarity of role is also a help and Moeen, through working in the nets and by talking to batsmen such as Ian Bell about how to bowl in certain situations, has crystallised his. Basically he has adopted different strategies between the first and second innings: in the former he probes a tight off-stump line but giving no width; in the second, after the pitch has deteriorated, he bowls wider so that he might spin it back.
He has also begun to bowl a bit quicker but without sacrificing any of the spin energy on the ball that gives him his natural drift and dip, two things crucial to attacking both edges of the bat. One lesson he has learnt though, is that good batsmen tend to get down the pitch and whack anything given too much air, a fault of his early on.
With his drift, dip and turn, he possesses high end skills that will gain in menace when more consistency is added. India’s legendary spinner Erapalli Prasanna, who took 189 wickets in 49 Tests in the Sixties and Seventies, certainly thinks improvements beckon, believing that Moeen could become even more potent when he improves his length.
“Moeen has been successful because his line has been so excellent,” said Prasanna after talking to DNA, an Indian website. “If he were to improve his length, he will become more dangerous.”
His success with the ball has ensured that two debates have not really occurred: the decline of his own batting since his brave but futile hundred at Headingley two months ago, and the lack of penetration among England’s backup bowlers, Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan, who have so far performed several notches below the excellent James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
It is the quantity theory of talent, especially in cricket, that if you are good at two things, as Moeen is, when one improves the other declines. As Moeen’s wickets have risen his runs have fallen mostly due to a worrying frailty against the short ball.
As someone who likes to play shots, Moeen must find a solution to his batting being compromised by such a basic tactic. If he does not, the pressure to succeed will fall on his bowling, which is when fingers tighten and wrists strain and wickets dry up.
In that respect, it is like balancing an eco system and to ignore one skill at the expense of the other would be pure folly.