England vs India fifth Test: Moeen Ali happy to be breaking down barriers

England bowler has achieved cult status this summer

Cricket Correspondent

Moeen Ali is the sensation of the summer. He is taking wickets galore, he has played one of the vintage rearguard innings, he has a flowing beard which makes him the most recognisable cricketer in the country, and he has made a controversial but deeply felt humanitarian statement on one of the most contentious military actions in memory, which itself instantly marked him out from the sporting crowd.

Take your pick. The combination of these factors may come to make Moeen’s selection for England one of the most significant of all. It was clear from the reaction to his telling intervention on the third and last afternoon of the fourth Test at Old Trafford that he has already achieved cult status.

If it is the beard that might be the most persuasive feature in this peculiar form of elevation, as it was the patka with Monty Panesar, there is also already a sense that Moeen can go well beyond it. There is much more to him than whiskers.

He was selected at the start of the season as England ventured into the unknown, as a middle-order batsman and a part-time off spinner. With the ball at any rate, he has transcended all expectations, acquitting himself adequately against Sri Lanka and, so far, outwitting Indian batsmen who are supposed to be the most adept on the planet at coping with slow bowling.

Nineteen wickets at an average of 28.05 tell their own story. They have been crucial to England going 2-1 up in the Investec series. His valiant, final-day hundred against Sri Lanka at Headingley, spread over more than six hours, came within two balls of rescuing the match and the series.

 

But Moeen has demonstrated that he is more than a cricketer. It is this above all, perhaps, that has marked him out. As a Muslim playing for England he can be a force for good in bridging the gap between communities. Although he was unwilling to be pulled too far down this path today during a meeting with reporters before the final Test begins on Friday, he did not, would not, completely rebuff his interlocutors.

“There’s been a bit of change,” he said. “When I go to the shops I get free food and stuff now. A lot more people obviously recognise me and ask me for autographs. It’s good because I get a lot of Asian kids especially coming and asking me ‘what’s it like playing for England?’ and ‘how do people treat you?’ and that kind of stuff.

“That’s the kind of barrier I want to try and break down – that people think it is tough and will treat you badly if you’re a practising Muslim or whatever. That is the reason I like to play cricket for England – because I can break down barriers for other people and inspire kids, not just Asian kids but all kids, to play.

“Previously a lot of them wanted to play for India and Pakistan but now I get a lot more Asians coming up to me saying they’re supporting England. That for me makes me happier than anything.”

During the third Test at Southampton, on which he was eventually to have the decisive influence with his bowling, Moeen entered the arena wearing two wristbands. He had not advertised the fact but long-range cameras picked them out. One said: “Save Gaza” and the other “Free Palestine.” The attacks on Gaza by Israel were at their height.

It was no surprise to discover that the wristbands contravened ICC regulations. Moeen was told to remove them. To its credit, the England and Wales Cricket Board did not criticise him, probably relieved to have a cricketer on its hands who did not think solely about how he might improve his doosra or his method against bouncers.

“I didn’t think it would be such a big deal,” he said. “I just totally forgot I had them on when I went into bat. I wasn’t trying to be political, it was just a humanitarian thing. I can speak about it but I don’t think it’s the right time now, especially before a Test match.”

And so to the bowling. Moeen has defied the expectations of all and confounded the critics, including this reporter, of the policy to entrust England’s spin to him. If not quite a part-timer, nor was he a specialist.

Although he was far from disgracing himself against Sri Lanka he was obviously not up to it, not trusted by the captain, Alastair Cook. Bowling for Worcestershire in the Second Division of the County Championship was somewhat different from holding the line, in every sense, in a Test.

The transformation, largely effected by Ian Bell, came after the first Test against India at Trent Bridge. He bowled 46 overs in the match but India largely gave the impression of being in control.

“After Trent Bridge, where I went for quite a few runs, I sat down and analysed it and felt the need for change,” Moeen said. “Then Belly took me to one side on the practice day at Lord’s and said, ‘look, this is what you’ve got to do to be consistent in the Test side, this is what Swanny [Graeme Swann] did, bowl quicker and straighter, especially on a first-day pitch’.

“Then I went into the nets and the umpire Kumar Dharmasena was there and I asked him, as a former off-spinner, how could I bowl quicker without it being flat. I didn’t want to bowl one-day stuff. And he said ‘just grab your pocket as quickly as you can with your non-bowling arm’. As soon as I bowled one ball I knew it would work. That, for some reason, allows me to bowl quicker and straighter without being flat. I knew that was how I needed to bowl from then on.”

Moeen’s record after six Tests compares reasonably with that of Jim Laker and Swann, great off-spinners both. His batting has suffered since Headingley. Not only does he keep walking into short balls, he is being dismissed too casually. He needs runs soon but as long as he keeps taking wickets he is secure. Neither he, England nor the rest of us should run too far ahead. But something special may be afoot.

Investec, the specialist bank and asset manager, is the  title sponsor of Test match cricket in England. Visit investec.co.uk/cricket or  follow us @InvestecCricket

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