We were originally going to present this article as being the views of Captain Hindsight, but when we started to write it we realised that half of England’s problems were actually fairly easy to see in advance.
So while some of what follows comes with the benefit of knowing how things panned out, that’s not true of all of it. Whether or not the sum of all these things would have made any difference to the end result is of course another matter.
Moeen Ali is a player of top innings rather than being a top batsman. Even before this series, his Test average was only 34.66. That’s pretty good for someone who bowls, but not really enough to warrant a place in the top six, which is where he found himself come the first Test.
Based on what followed, Moeen would have been batting a place too high had he come in at number nine. Craig Overton and Tom Curran averaged more than him, Stuart Broad managed a higher score, and you can’t imagine Gary Ballance would have bowled any less effectively.
We love Moeen, but things wouldn’t have turned out much differently for England had they instead picked a specialist fielder.
Michael Vaughan said Ben Stokes had been given ‘strong warnings’ about his lifestyle even before that night in the cells. It wasn’t like England should have locked him in his room each night, but could they not at least have persuaded him to refrain from going out on the lash in the middle of a series?
Who knows whether some other incident might have happened subsequently, but even a slight change in behaviour might have been enough to avoid the Bristol incident.
Our article about Toby Roland-Jones’ Test debut was essentially a veiled question: ‘Why have you picked a right-arm 80mph bowler when we’re touring Australia this winter?’
Plenty of similarly pedestrian right-armers followed. We’d sort of assumed that there was a minimum pace requirement for young seam bowlers, as this seems to have been an unstated part of the job description for as long as we can remember. When did this cease to apply?
People watch Jimmy Anderson bowling at 80-85mph and hope that younger bowlers operating at a similar clip might gradually develop his skills. But that isn’t the way it worked for Jimmy. He could bowl at 90mph in his first few seasons. The increased skill has compensated for the decrease in speed. He never entered a Test match with neither.
Craig Overton, Tom Curran and Jake Ball are about a tenth as skilful as Jimmy Anderson and don’t really have much to make up the shortfall. Overton and Ball have height, Curran has a slower ball, but England’s attack is so monochrome, this really isn’t enough.
Faster English bowlers do still exist. Either they’re not sufficiently valued or not especially well-managed.
England were never going to play Mason Crane until the series was already lost. When they did, he performed about as effectively as you’d imagine a 20-year-old debutant leg-spinner would.
It’s great that England seem to have identified him as one for the future and that they’re keen to invest in him, but they also identified Adil Rashid as one for the future a long time ago and despite his being top wicket-taker last winter, they ceased investing in him immediately before this Ashes series.
You have to try and recoup investments. Test experience is a finite resource. This whole thing just seemed so wasteful.
A flirtation with run-scoring in the first Test might have encouraged some to think otherwise, but this really isn’t hindsight, is it?
It was so obvious we actually titled September’s Ashes squad post England to win the Ashes via airy off-side drives.
James Vince’s first stint in the Test team ended because he didn’t score any runs and kept edging behind. Having underscored the fact that his record in the first division of the County Championsship is really rather mediocre through his efforts during the 2017 season, the selectors brought him back at number three for the Ashes.
He didn’t score any runs and kept edging behind.
If you’re England in Australia, chances are you’re going to lose anyway. You are not going to improve your odds by spending the years leading up to the series doing a load of things that everyone in the world can see are manifestly wrong.
Moeen Ali is the only member of the second Test team who will play England’s latest warm-up match. He will do so because a side strain at the start of the tour left him short of overs.
He won’t bowl.
England are presumably of the opinion that Moeen will be infused with bowling simply through being near it. One can only hope that the batsmen will find form in similar fashion.
Watch out for which members of England’s Test top five don the High-Visibility Tabard of Squad Membership to carry drinks. These are the ones who are sure to make runs in the third Test.
Mo mowed it.
It was a day of increasing numbness to sixes and Batting Ali had the good sense to get in early when they still seemed important and the match was still in the balance.
Others may have hit the ball further, but no-one lashed it quite so reliably or with such whiplash cleanliness. It was the kind of hitting that buys you a couple of dropped chances.
Moeen was also aided by the Windies bowlers seemingly targeting ‘the slot’ when bowling to him. If the resultant highlights were somewhat reminiscent of that time Loots Bosman and Graeme Smith built an entire Twenty20 innings total on just one shot, the actual physical act of mullering it over the leg-side boundary had a lot more fluidity to it on this occasion.
“I just had a slog really,” said our man afterwards. “I tried to watch the ball, keep my shape and really go for it.”
He neglected to inform us whether he’d obeyed or disproved that other modern commentary trope: tell us, Mo, did you at any point try and overhit it?
For a man first bunged into the side on the basis that he was a reasonable batsman and halfway competent spin bowler, Moeen Ali is doing some exceptional things in international cricket. Selected as mortar to fill in the cracks, he’s instead revealed himself to be a giant Pyramid-of-Khufu-sized stone block that flickers in and out of existence.
It’s not really what they were expecting, but England are happy with that. It therefore wouldn’t be a surprise if selection policy were to head even further down the all-rounder road in a bet-hedging trawl for tomorrow’s specialists.
When Moeen Ali was first labelled England’s second spinner, it was widely assumed that Liam Dawson must therefore be the first spinner. It stood to reason.
However, Moeen supposedly remained the second spinner even when he was the only one of the two selected, which raises the possibility that Dawson was actually the third spinner all along.
So who is England’s main spinner? No idea, but they should seriously consider picking him. If the second choice fella can take 25 wickets at 15.64 in a four-Test series – including a hat trick – then just imagine what kind of an impact the first choice guy would have had.
It also seems highly likely that England are failing to pick their best five specialist batsmen, so they might want to address that one too.
But back to Moeen, because we have a theory to posit. Our theory is this: Moeen Ali is engaged in an ongoing post-modern joke that no-one else is in on. We believe he is actively going out of his way to give the most boring answers to post-match interviews.
We finally saw through his ruse while watching Channel 5’s highlights of the fourth Test. Mark Nicholas tried to corner him with a leading question that positively demanded an interesting answer. He asked whether Jimmy Anderson had been getting any stick from his team-mates for having an end named after him.
Of course he has. Everyone knows he has. All Moeen had to do was say one of the things that had been said. Instead, he chose to answer a different question; a blander question. He said that it was a great honour for Jimmy to have an end named after him and everyone in the team was happy for him.
Moeen is fundamentally smart, self-aware and interesting. He is doing this on purpose. Next time you’re watching him being interviewed, entertain yourself by playing “how the hell will Moeen get out of saying something interesting this time.”
It is a game that will hopefully run and run.
We’ve told you before how we once saw a story in the local paper where a woman had come second in some sort of vegetable growing competition despite being the only person to enter something in that particular category. The judges decided that her entry was only worthy of a silver medal, despite it having zero competition.
So it is with Moeen Ali. Speaking before the second Test, England coach Trevor Bayliss asserted that the man we like to call Bowling Ali was the team’s second spinner.
England promptly dropped their first spinner, but who’s to say that Moeen isn’t still second in a hierarchy of one?
People don’t call Moeen a part-timer quite as much they once did, but the all-rounder is still short of the respect he deserves.
Perhaps it’s a matter of perception and expectation.
As we’ve been saying for three years now, Moeen Ali is not a spinner to tie up an end – nor is that something he should particularly aspire to. Maybe if people accept this and realise that defensive bowling lies down a different road to attacking bowling, England’s best player might be acknowledged as precisely that.
Further to yesterday’s debate about the identity of England’s best player, here’s one possible way of rating them
We made the point yesterday that people shouldn’t blindly accept that Joe Root is England’s best player because he only regularly contributes in one facet of the game. We then a touch disingenuously suggested that all of England’s many all-rounders had a better claim to such a title, simply by dint of contributing in multiple disciplines.
There then followed an interesting-but-lengthy to and fro about the definition of an all-rounder and their value to a team.
Bradders suggested that players could be assessed by their ability to make match-winning contributions. We therefore give you the hundreds and five-fors rating, a wilfully simplistic system whereby hundreds and five-fors are given equal weight and everything else a player might do is utterly disregarded.
These are the figures for the last 12 months, presented within an old-school HTML table which will probably lose its formatting in the majority of internet browsers.
As you may or may not be able to see, Moeen Ali is England’s best player and he is almost twice as good as Joe Root.
It feels like one of those rare moments when very few people are talking about whether or not Moeen Ali will be able to keep his place in the England side. While many all-rounders benefit from being able to contribute in two separate disciplines, the beardster always seems to be viewed as someone who has been underperforming in one or the other.
You’ve got a pet favourite batsman from the County Championship? Maybe he should be playing instead of Moeen Ali. You fancy the look of a new young spinner? He’s probably a better bet than Moeen Ali.
Meanwhile, England keep on picking him and he keeps on contributing something or other in every match he plays. As well as the ten wickets and the 87 runs in the first innings of the first Test against South Africa, our man also took a couple of blinding catches. It’s all part of the job – if only because everything’s part of Moeen Ali’s job.
We reckon that a match-winning performance like this should be sufficient to buy Moeen a period of grace of approximately one Test match. After that, someone somewhere will again deem him to be under pressure.
Moeen doesn’t care. He’ll turn away from it all like a blind man and then – same as he’s done many times before – do something, anything, to earn himself one more chance.
These last chances are really stacking up for the lad. We wouldn’t bet against him stringing a hundred of them together.
With their feisty batting in the morning and a pair of wickets each, Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad truly delivered non-captains’ performances.
This is what good team members do. They set an example for the captain to follow. It’s like they always say: he who leads the leader slightly reduces the duration of the group’s journey by arriving early.
Yes, they do always say that.
Broad’s batting is now a perfect combination of timing and terror, with exquisite back foot drives bubbling atop a constant undercurrent of jeopardy. His innings are so much more enjoyable for being so fragile.
Moeen Ali’s batting is not dissimilar, although the general experience is dreamier and the end more sudden. Where Broad is keen that you never forget his dismissal is an everpresent danger, Moeen only intermittently reminds you that his is a possibility.
Other events of the day were South Africa going after Liam Dawson a bit (because why wouldn’t you?) and an ICC announcement that Kagiso Rabada would serve a one-match suspension after becoming the first person in the history of the world to instruct Ben Stokes to fuck off.
If you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can ask Moeen Ali to do the job.
He’ll probably say yes.
“Hey Moeen, fancy being an international spin bowler?”
“Yeah, all right.”
“Hey Moeen, great bowling. And great batting in the middle order as well – really dynamic. Do you maybe fancy opening in one-dayers?”
“Yeah, all right.”
“Cracking stuff. Really cracking stuff. Thing is – and I feel a bit awkward saying this because you’ve done really well; don’t for one minute think this reflects on you – but do you maybe fancy batting at eight? Don’t take it as a demotion. It’s more that the other guys can’t seem to bat at eight. Yeah, I know how that sounds, but it does seem to be the case. And you’ve been so adaptable – really just coped with whatever we’ve asked you to do, so…?”
“Yeah, all right.”
“Great stuff with the batting at eight, Mo. Great stuff. Now this is a bit of an odd one – we know you’ve never opened in a first-class match before – but do you maybe fancy opening in Tests?”
“Yeah, all right.”
“Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And, er, how about going back to seven and eight for a bit afterwards and then maybe we can ink you in at five for the winter.”
“Yeah, all right.”
“Okay, so obviously we did want to keep you at five for a while, but the thing is there’s been a few injuries and things, so in this match could you maybe bat at four in the first innings and three in the second?”
“Yeah, all right.”
“Great. I mean really great. We don’t want to mess you about or anything. You’ve really coped admirably with everything we’ve asked you to do and we know it’s not fair to keep messing you about. Ultimately, we want to allow you to get settled in one position. Role definition is very important in this England team. One thing though, er – how are you with spreadsheets? I think I’ve mucked up one of the formulas in this one and I can’t work out what I’ve done. You couldn’t take a quick look, could you? There’s also a problem with the central heating at Loughborough if you could check that out at some point? Also we need someone to make a few hotel bookings.”
“Yeah, all right.”
“Great stuff, Mo. We really value your ability to uncomplainingly turn your hand to literally bloody anything.”