Moeen Ali’s identity crisis doing no good to England’s post-World Cup march

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On the back of England’s win in the first two ODIs, two young cricketers, Tom Banton and Sam Billings, spoke about the competitive nature of the English white-ball side and how it’s the toughest in the world to get into. Moeen Ali’s free run in the side, however, contradicts that very statement.

On Tuesday, Moeen Ali, in the absence of Morgan in the second innings, might have led the English side to a rather innocuous defeat at the hands of Ireland but that, one would imagine, would be the least of his concerns heading into white-ball legs against both Pakistan and Australia. Put simply and softly, the Ireland series was fruitless for the all-rounder: he averaged 0.50 with the bat and went wicketless in all three matches whilst conceding 115 runs in total. In other words, the difference between the number of runs he scored and the number of wickets he took in the series was one. These are figures no player would be proud of at any level, let alone the vice-captain of England at the international stage, but while for most players a series like this would be nothing but a mere anomaly, for Moeen, however, this has, in a way, become the new normal. 

Moeen’s lugubrious display at home against a side ranked eleventh in the world was a delineation of everything he has transformed into - a half-baked, confidence-less bits and pieces all-rounder who has little faith in his own ability; a cricketer heavily suffering from an identity crisis. At times, it was wistful watching him go about his business - “what happened to the ebullient x-factor all-rounder who could make a difference with both bat and ball?” it made you question. Across the three ODIs, he felt more like a burden to the team than an asset and at no point, certainly, did he come off as a 105-ODI veteran who was the second-most experienced cricketer of a young outfit. 

His performances have, of course, been given little importance due to England’s overall success but his dismissal in the third ODI, where he chipped a nothing delivery softly to cover in the fear of being bounced out, certainly raised the following question: How and why is Moeen Ali in the side? It is a question to which I have been able to find no answer and I suppose no matter how hard anyone tries, they will have no feasible argument to justify Moeen’s output in recent times. 

For, after breaking into the side in 2014 as an aggressive top-order batsman who can be trusted to do a fine job in the middle with the ball, Moeen has now transformed into a defective Ravindra Jadeja prototype who, unlike the latter, has no strong area of expertise. It is not an opinion but a hard fact, and the numbers suggest the same. 

Since the start of 2019, the all-rounder has featured in 18 ODIs and has averaged 16.30 with the bat and 106.42 with the ball. In this timeframe, the off-spinner has picked just seven wickets and has gone wicketless in 69% (11/16) of the innings he’s bowled in; to put these numbers into a broader perspective, in the entire world, only Glenn Maxwell (136.20) averaged more with the ball than Moeen in this period and, ironically, the Australian had an economy rate (5.67) almost 0.20 better than Moeen’s 5.86. With the bat, it’s even worse. Isuru Udana is the only player in the Top 8 to have scored a minimum of 100 runs and averaged less than Moeen’s 16.30 since the start of 2019 but the Sri Lankan has claimed a total of 16 wickets in this period, which is 9 more than the Englishman. 

And that, exactly, is where the problem lies for Moeen: he is neither a reliable batsman nor an effective bowler. He was both not so long ago, but those days are long gone. With the ball, barring the three-wicket haul against Pakistan at Trent Bridge in the World Cup which, ironically, ended in a defeat, Moeen has not delivered a single performance of note in his last 23 innings - dating back to June 25, 2018 - while with the bat his last defining knock came almost three years ago at the Oval versus the Windies where his unbeaten 25-ball 48 helped England triumph via D/L method. In fact, dating back to Jan 2018, in his last 31 knocks, Moeen has averaged 16.92 with no fifty-plus scores to his name.  

So what’s the one attribute that’s forcing the selectors to lean towards him despite it being evidently clear that he could neither be trusted with the bat nor the ball? Experience, one could argue. He is, behind Morgan, Buttler and Root, with 105 caps to his name, the fourth-most experienced ODI cricketer in the England squad. Yet rarely has this number ‘105’ transpired into a veteran-esque display on the field. 

In both the 2nd and the 3rd ODIs against Ireland, Moeen had ample time to both arrest a collapse and push England into a position of dominance - in the 2nd ODI, he walked in at 137/5 with England chasing 213 and in the 3rd, he came to bat at 202/5; on both occasions, England were in the middle of a mini-collapse - yet he callously threw his wicket away; David Willey, instead, had to do the rescue job on both occasions. This was not a one-off, either. It was a similar reckless hit against Sri Lanka - he holed out to long-off with England needing 52 more to win; England eventually lost the match - that cost him his place in the World Cup. The Ireland series, it could be said, was a mere extension of Moeen’s mediocrity that has now been on display for no less than 18 months.  

Certainly, England, who are now embarking on their journey for the next three ICC events, would be better off with a reliable spin-bowling all-rounder - especially given the fact that two of the next three ICC events will take place in India - but whether Moeen is the right option remains to be seen, especially when there is a ready-made fit in the form of Liam Dawson waiting on the sidelines. 

Dawson, who is, in a way, nearing his peak, knows plenty about the sub-continent having played multiple seasons in both the Pakistan Super League and the Bangladesh Premier League and to go along with the fact that he, unlike Moeen, is an out-and-out specialist left-arm spinner, his List A batting average of 32.98 also speaks volumes of his batting ability. In fact, it was only prior to the commencement of the Ireland ODIs that his 4/21 and 21* clinched Team Vince a victory over Team Moeen in an intrasquad warmup match. Whether he’d cut it for the international level is a question that can only be answered if he’s tried and tested out, but there is every case for him to at least be given a chance right now ahead of Moeen Ali, who has been carried with the ball by Adil Rashid and with the bat by a ton of ludicrously talented cricketers. 

As unimportant and inconsequential as it was, the Ireland series was a scathing and scary reminder of how far Moeen’s stocks have fallen. Yes, there might be light at the end of the tunnel - he’s bounced back before and there’s no reason why he cannot do it again -  but for a ruthless team like England that values competition and believes in merit, it feels a bit off for them to piggyback a cricketer who has underperformed for two years. We all love clinging on to toys that we once adored and used to play with, but, eventually, there comes a time where we need to let go. 

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