England v Sri Lanka first Test: England bowler Moen Ali eager not to be spun into the next Graeme Swann

Main spin option for the first Test against Sri Lanka is still learning – with help from Ajmal

England’s search for a new spinner may start and end with Moeen Ali. If this sounds an implausible premise given the progress of his off-break bowling so far, Ali talked a splendid game on Tuesday which involved doosras, wrong’uns and mystery, and made it seem as if he were the second incarnation of Saeed Ajmal.

As one of the three new caps likely to be paraded at Lord’s in the first Test against Sri Lanka on Thursday, he will be entrusted with the role of middle-order batsman (probably at No 6) and the team’s main spin option.

England are going into this match without a specialist spinner partly because they expect their seam bowling to account for the tourists, partly because they felt there was not a specialist spinner worthy of recognition.

This combination of thinking undoubtedly played a part in securing  Ali his selection. The player’s confidence has been raised by regular chats and training sessions with the great Saeed himself, Pakistan’s master of the doosra and Ali’s colleague at Worcestershire.

Although his primary task will be to score runs in a side which has been chaotically short of them lately, he sees a future for himself as a versatile, front-line off-spinner and the successor to Graeme Swann, who abruptly announced his retirement after the third Test of last winter’s disastrous Ashes series Down Under. Shane Watson struck him for 22 runs off the final over of his 60 Tests as Australia regained the urn at Perth.

Ali will be expected to play more like Swann in his pomp but is up for the challenge. “I think, in time, definitely,” he said. “I am not here to try and replace him, I am here to do exactly what I’ve been doing at Worcester and doing a good job with the bat and ball and try to contribute and win the game for England.

“He [Swann] was different – a fantastic spinner and one of the few who drifted at such speed. Speaking to top-quality batters around the world they say he was brilliant because he drifted it away then jagged it back in. I think I will definitely improve and have potential to be a good, top spinner.”

It would be wise were Ali and his supporters not to get too far ahead of themselves. He deserves this selection because he is an improving and elegant batsman who scored four hundreds last year at an average above 60. But his career total of 112 Championship wickets has come at a cost of 40.05 runs each and he has never taken more than 33 in a season. Sooner or later – probably sooner – England will need a player who can properly be described as a front-line spinner and they must avoid trying to create out of Ali something he is not.

Still, not many international cricketers are made from being diffident and Ali clearly believes that Saeed’s passing on of the secrets of the doosra has changed everything. Although it remains a work in progress, he has unfurled it in a few Twenty20s and in a Championship match last week without mishap.

“Being an off-spinner coming through now, if I was just bowling normal off-spin, guys can get hold of you easier than probably a left-arm spinner,” he said. “If you get something different or mystery or even put just a little bit of doubt in the batsman’s head, it makes a massive difference – even if you don’t bowl it. Saeed says half the time he doesn’t have to bowl it because people just know that he’s got it.”

Ali’s selection is significant for other reasons. He is not the first Muslim to play for England but he is the first with such a noticeable beard. Refreshingly and candidly, he makes no secret of his reasons for wearing it.

“All the prophets from Adam to Mohamed to Jesus and all these guys had a beard,” he said. “It is a label for us to show that we are Muslim just how it is when you wear a uniform in school. It represents that you have to be on your best behaviour all the time. So it means a lot, and it means a lot to other people as well. I remember seeing other Muslim athletes carrying the label of being a religious person and that does inspire people.”

He conceded that it was a slight problem in the wind if it flapped up and so he trims it regularly. “I enjoy it. It’s nice.” It is a tribute to the inclusive nature of cricket. Ali will not be judged by the length or absence of his beard but the effectiveness of his cover drive and doosra.

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