It was not too long ago that Moeen Ali was voted England’s Test player of the summer. He sparkled with the ball, taking 30 wickets (25 of them vs South Africa) and made several useful contributions down the order, making 361 runs with three fifties. His influence led to several calling him a ‘world class all-rounder’.
So you would be forgiven, if a Moeen fan, to be slightly protective over England’s spin-bowling all-rounder. Yet, just two games into the Ashes series, his worth to this England side is a real concern. Not only has Moeen taken just two wickets at a worrying average of 98, but he has barely looked like causing the Australian batsmen any problems at all.
The more the second Test developed at Adelaide, the less Joe Root seemed to have confidence in Moeen. England badly lacked a spinner to at least keep things tight during Australia’s 442/8, yet Moeen’s 0-79 from 24 overs offered neither control or a wicket-taking threat. His off-spinning deliveries were inconsistent and failed to build any much-needed pressure on Australia’s batsmen.
Even Moeen himself admitted he has been disappointing. “I don’t want to make excuses,” he told ESPN Cricinfo in Perth. “I haven’t bowled great. I couldn’t feel the ball in my fingers during the first Test. It was really sore. And at the end of the second, it ripped again.
“I need to bowl but I don’t want it to rip again. It’s much better but in the second innings in Adelaide, it started to rip again. So I’m not going to bowl. I’m going to let it heal more. You feel like you’ve let the team down and the captain down especially. (Nathan) Lyon is bowling so well. So you end up comparing yourself to him and then you try even harder. And he’s got me out four times. I’ve always said ‘it’s just a game of cricket.’ But the only time I feel pressure is when I feel I’ve let the team down. That is the only thing.”
Moeen’s lacklustre displays with the ball in Australia are not a one-off. During England’s disastrous tour of India last winter, he took just 10 wickets at 64.90 apiece when he was considered to be England’s leading spinner and the potential driving force of their bowling attack on spinning pitches. He was also considerably outbowled by the tourists’ second spinner, Adil Rashid, who took 23 wickets at 37.43. It was a worrying omen for his struggles at the moment.
The fortunes of Moeen in this Ashes series have been a stark contrast to that of Nathan Lyon. While Ali has struggled, the Australian off-spinner has shone, taking 11 wickets from the first two Tests and, in the process, constantly tying England’s batsmen down, as his economy of 2.29 proves. The control Lyon provides means that Australia can get away with playing only three seamers, therefore allowing them time to rest aplenty in between spells. It’s a key battle that Australia are winning handsomely.
Not only is Moeen underperforming with the ball, his returns with the bat are also a major concern. Promoted to number six in the absence of Ben Stokes, Moeen has made just 105 runs at 26.25, falling four times to his opposite number, Lyon on all four occasions so far. There were better signs in the second innings at Brisbane with a positive 40 that was full of intent, before a controversial stumping ended his stay. The line on the crease may not have been straight but it was a nonetheless the kind of soft dismissal many have become accustomed during Moeen’s time as a Test cricketer.
Moeen can provide brilliant moments with the bat but his maturity must surely still be in doubt. While he did score two centuries at number five and number four respectively in India last winter, a handful of his dismissals were irresponsible and profligate. His second hundred at Chennai, in particular, was full of rash strokes, combined with charmed lives. Moeen is playing with a similar rashness at number six on this tour.
So what do England do? Moeen has indeed been a stalwart of this England Test side ever since his debut in 2014 and is still a fine cricketer. However, he is having virtually zero impact with the ball, which is having an adverse effect on the workload of England’s seamers. What’s more, he looks increasingly insecure at number six, and with quicker pitches still to come, it’s unlikely that his fragility will be ending anytime soon.
The likelihood is that Moeen will play at Perth. Yet, the England selectors will have to ask themselves how many more poor overseas performances from Moeen they can put up with before it’s time to turn to someone else. The all-rounder needs a big display at the WACA or he could be on borrowed time.