As Moeen Ali celebrated his second IPL title with Chennai Super Kings after a breathless final in Ahmedabad seven weeks ago, Test cricket could not have been further from his mind. He was in his second year of retirement from the format, balancing his commitments as England’s white-ball vice-captain with lucrative opportunities on the T20 circuit.
Now, with an Ashes series on the line in Manchester, he is not only England’s lead spinner, but their No. 3 batter, too. It is a unique all-round role for England in modern Ashes cricket; to find a precedent, you have to go back to the days of ‘Young Jack’ Hearne, Frank Woolley and Wilfred Rhodes.
This was not meant to happen. Moeen planned to spend these few weeks enjoying some rare time off in the short gap between the T20 Blast and the Hundred, but events – Jack Leach’s back, Ollie Pope’s shoulder and Moeen’s conversation with Brendon McCullum on the third evening at Headingley – have taken over, as they often do.
“Things happen for a reason,” Moeen said on Monday. “I genuinely believe that and I’ve always believed it. That’s why, when the call came, I thought, ‘It’s an opportunity I can’t turn down.’ It’s a great challenge but yeah, things happen for a reason. I’m a big one on faith and destiny and all that.”
Emirates Old Trafford was meant to be the scene of Moeen’s final Test two years ago, but India’s withdrawal from the game hours before the first ball was bowled meant that his farewell appearance never happened. Two years later, he should get the chance to bow out at The Oval: “It would be amazing to win an Ashes and finish Test cricket properly.”
Moeen’s promotion to No. 3 at Headingley was a move in keeping with the rest of his Test career, engineered for the benefit of others rather than himself. He knew that Harry Brook was more comfortable at No. 5, and thought Jonny Bairstow would have more influence shifting down a spot or two, so approached McCullum and pitched his idea.
He explained: “If I can even just play 10 overs and we get through that hardness of the ball, it’s probably easier for the other guys to come in – especially in a chase like that. I just thought it was better, and they obviously all agreed.”
Moeen only made 5 off 15 balls before losing his leg stump to Mitchell Starc, yet his promotion was a qualified success: it meant Brook walked out in the 20th over, rather than the 10th, and his 75 was the decisive innings in England’s three-wicket win. “I know you want your best players up the order,” he said, “but with Popey out of the side, it’s obviously short-term.”
And it is easily forgotten, amid his self-deprecation, that Moeen is an experienced No. 3. He has batted there 75 times in first-class cricket for Worcestershire, averaging 53.61 with seven hundreds and two doubles, and has long said that the higher up the order he bats, the more he feels like a genuine batter: “You end up preparing differently.”
“[I’ve been] going back to simple things about batting: playing the ball late; playing as straight as I can; and just leaving a few balls,” he explained. “Just trying to get my mindset right for No. 3.” He netted in the indoor school at Edgbaston between Tests, and since arriving in Manchester has been “just hitting balls, training quite a bit, trying to get myself ready for a tough challenge”.
Moeen is 18 runs away from reaching 3,000 in Tests, to go with his 200 wickets, and would become only the 16th man to complete that double. “I think it means more to my dad,” he said. “It would mean a lot to me as well but my dad is the one who is buzzing for it so hopefully I can get there. I know it’s only 20-odd runs but it feels like miles off.”
He has thrived with the ball at Old Trafford, taking 16 wickets in his three previous Tests here, and proved at Headingley – where he dismissed both Marnus Labuschagne and Steven Smith – that his spinning finger has healed sufficiently for him to fulfil his role after the seam of the ball ripped his skin at Edgbaston.
Moeen was sent an anti-bacterial gel called ‘Medihoney’ by an NHS worker after the first Test, who wrote him a letter explaining that she was a big fan; it helped to heal the wound almost straightaway. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing,'” he told the BBC. “Those little things are what make me content and happy.”
Moeen will be part of one of the oldest, most experienced bowling attacks in England’s Test history this week. They have 1,974 Test wickets between them, breaking the record set by the attack that played in the first match of the series. “I was always told that old is gold,” he said with a smile.
Everything about Moeen’s comeback has been surreal, yet somehow utterly in keeping with the rest of a mercurial Test career. When he first retired, it seemed Moeen’s legacy would be his selflessness and adaptability. If he can help England square the series this week, it could be even greater.
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