On the eve of the first Test between India and England in Rajkot, Moeen Ali sat down with Jo Harman to discuss how far he’s come as an international cricketer and how much further he has to go.
As England ready themselves for the first of a five-match series against an Indian side who haven’t lost a Test on home soil in four years, Moeen Ali has never felt more important to their cause.
He has filled a plethora of roles since debuting in June 2014, batting in seven different positions in his 32 Test matches, and on occasion his versatility has seemed as much a burden to him as a benefit, most notably when he was unsuccessfully asked to open the batting in the UAE last winter.
In this series Moeen’s role is clearly defined, and it’s one that suits him. He will bat at No.5 – one place below Ben Duckett who will move down the order to accommodate Haseeb Hameed as an opener – and lead England’s spin attack. “For me, it’s the perfect role I want to be playing in the England side and hopefully I can do it for years to come,” he tells AOC at England’s team hotel in Rajkot. “It’s the ideal role and one I really want to make my own.”
While Alastair Cook lamented the fact that England “haven’t got any world-class spinners” after last month’s defeat at Dhaka, Moeen’s performances in Bangladesh were a step in the right direction. He took 11 wickets at 23, strung together spells that showed the consistency Cook will so desperately need from his spinners in India and produced deliveries that were genuinely world-class, even if his overall performances fell short of that mark.
Having been no more than a part-time spinner for Worcestershire as recently as 2011, it’s easy to forget that Moeen has had to learn on the job. He’s disarmingly honest in his appraisal of his bowling so far for England, perhaps harshly so given he is 12 shy of 100 Test wickets, with a strike-rate near enough on a par with the great Jim Laker.
“I always felt that I bowled wicket-taking balls but I just never really saw myself as a frontline spinner,” he says. “I’d never have thought that I would be the frontline spinner for England. At best I thought I’d be a second spinner.
“It’s been tough. I wouldn’t say I’ve done that well. I’ve done OK – there have been some series where I’ve bowled quite well and some series where I’ve bowled not so well. I’ve not bowled the [amount of] balls that frontline spinners at 28 have normally bowled. But what I do have is two-and-half years of experience of playing for England and it’s just getting better and better all the time. It takes time, you know. I would say I’m just getting into a phase of my bowling where I’m starting to understand a lot more.
“A lot of people forget that Swann started playing for England at 28. He’d played a lot of cricket. I’m 29 now. And as a spinner it probably takes longer to develop than anybody else. I don’t think I’ll ever be a world-class spinner, to be honest. But you never know. I’ll try. That’s all you can do.”
Helping him in this series will be Saqlain Mushtaq, who has joined up with the touring party as a spin-bowling consultant. England’s Test squad haven’t had a dedicated spin-bowling coach since Mushtaq Ahmed left the role in 2014 – something which was recently criticised by Graeme Swann – and Moeen welcomes the expertise. “Saqlain is tactically one of the best people I’ve spoken to. He’s opening my mind about not just bowling spin but also playing mind games, fields, tactics, looking at the wicket. He’s helping me really understand that side of the game and it’s something I’ve never really done before.
“I think it’s brilliant to have a spin coach around, especially maybe at the stage we’re at. We don’t have world-class spinners and we don’t really have anyone in county cricket coming through. We need as much help as we can get.”
Monday’s training session with Saqlain was the first time Moeen has worked on his doosra with a coach since breaking into the England team. If the potential is there, it is surely worth pursuing, particularly when the inventor of the delivery is on hand to assist. “Hopefully he can teach me a few things, a few tricks,” says Moeen. “It would be nice to have something like that.”
As one of England’s better players of spin, Moeen also has a vital role to play against India with the bat. After disappointing tours of the UAE and South Africa last winter he admits he “lost the love for it a little bit”, but he averages 50 since the start of the English summer, scoring centuries against Sri Lanka and Pakistan and hitting a crucial 68 in Chittagong, without which England would likely have lost the match.
“I’m pleased with my batting,” he says. “I feel like I’ve got my batting head back on. I sort of got to a point where I wasn’t practicing as much, I lost confidence. When I started batting at No.7 when Stokesy was injured in the summer I just told myself I was going to bat like I was batting at No.3 for Worcester and really prove myself as a batter.
“I think we’ll have to rein it in to a certain extent [in India] but not too much. You’ve still got to look to score runs and be positive against these guys. You can’t just be a sitting duck. You’ve got to try and put pressure back on them. They’re very good bowlers and if you let them bowl at you, they’re going to get you out.”
Of the likely England XI in Rajkot only four will have more Test experience than Moeen. In a relatively short space of time he’s become a senior member of the side on whom much depends, particularly for the challenge of India on their home patch. There are no signs that he’s feeling the pressure, though. He just can’t wait to get started.
“I only wanted to play one game for England, to be able to say I’ve played for England,” he says. “But playing international cricket, you can’t beat it. No matter who you’re playing against, it’s something else. It’s hard to explain sometimes. You get a taste for it and you just want to keep on playing. I know it’s a job but if I was offered to play for free, I’d play for free. As long as I’m playing, I’m going to keep enjoying it.”