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The Moeen Ali Problem

Ben Jones looks at the shifting role of England’s all-rounder in T20 cricket, and the issues it’s causing.

England’s T20 side are in very good shape. They have a surplus of top order batting options, perhaps more than any other side in the world. In Jofra Archer, they are blessed with arguably the best T20 seamer in the world right now. Adil Rashid is an excellent white ball spinner and, in the shape of Mark Wood, David Willey, Chris Jordan, and Tom Curran, a good core of experienced seamers who can rotate in and out according to the demands of any given match. 

There is only one spot which England are yet to fill with any certainty. Their second spinner for the last five years has, almost without fail, been Moeen Ali. Batting down the order almost as a spare batsman and spare bowler, Moeen balances the need for bowling flexibility and batting depth as well as anyone England have available.

However, Moeen’s form across formats has been an issue for some time. Since being dropped from the Test side in August 2019, he has seemingly struggled for confidence and rhythm, and has faced increased scrutiny over his place in the white ball formats. 

In all honesty, Moeen’s T20 batting form should not be a concern, primarily because his role down the order insists that he almost never gets to face many balls. Since the 2016 World T20, England’s No.7 – regardless of identity – faces an average of fewer than five deliveries a match. Moeen’s batting has always been highly inconsistent, something only exaggerated by the fact he’s been batting in this very volatile role. And while his overall returns – in terms of large scores – have tailed off, he still maintains the capacity to lay significant blows on the opposition, as scores of 61 (33) and 39 (15) in his last eight innings attest. What’s more, he is the fastest scoring T20I batsman in the world since the start of 2018. Facing a small number of deliveries after the big boys have had their go, and swinging hard, is a role where Moeen can be effective.

The issue for England is Moeen’s bowling. He has taken two wickets in his eight T20Is this year, with an economy of 8.53, translating to a Bowling Impact of -3.1. His short-term form with the ball is a problem. However, his long term form hasn’t been too clever either; since the 2016 World T20, Moeen has a T20I economy of 8.94, and six wickets in 15 matches.

To an extent, Morgan and his backroom staff have understood this, and changed the way they use him. Moeen’s bowling has, this year, shifted from frontline, to part-time. For three years he was relied upon for about three overs per match; in 2020, that’s dropped to about one over. 

This is partly because England have begun to use Moeen more as a role player, only trusting him when the matchups are right rather than backing him to succeed regardless. It’s a solid strategy – for all his issues, Moeen’s record against left-handed batsmen is perfectly decent.

However, this does leave England in a bind, the shifting balance of the side meaning that their “fifth” bowler overs – delivered by a combination of Moeen and Ben Stokes – are now ones they are trying to burgle, sneaking under the radar rather than being a genuine strength. The easy way to remedy that would be to pick a more reliable bowler than Moeen at No.7, a bowler-who-bats (Sam Curran, Tom Curran, David Willey), then relying on Stokes for the occasional relief over. The alternative is to pick someone they believe to be a better batsman than Moeen, but one who can deliver the occasional over (a batsman who bowls such as Liam Livingstone, or Joe Root – though of course batting him up the order), then demand more bowling from Stokes, and hope that the increase in runs negates any weakness. 

The knock-on for each of those options is that England have lost their second spinner, a role you imagine they will need in order to win a T20 World Cup in India. And here is the crux of the issue, the reason why Moeen’s bowling problems have a greater impact than they perhaps could, or should.

England don’t have a backup to Adil Rashid as a frontline spinner. The decision to not develop a genuine alternative to Rashid is perhaps the main accusation you could level at Eoin Morgan, a man who has otherwise led this England group with tactical clarity, as well as a dead-eyed moral certainty. He has credit in the bank, but this has been a misstep. No side in the world has relied more on one bowler to bowl their spin.

Liam Dawson has played six T20s for England in four years, surprising given his status as the only other England spinner to go and play elite T20 outside of the Blast. Perhaps England were all in on him for this winter, in which case, they have been stung by poor fortune; Dawson’s ruptured Achilles tendon, sustained towards the end of the summer, has ruled him out for a long while. 

It’s perfectly likely that England were planning to use this winter as preparation for using Dawson against right-hander-heavy sides, and in his absence, feel that young leg spinners Matt Parkinson and Mason Crane are not yet at the required level. That’s understandable, albeit with the caveat that their development could perhaps have been sped up by greater exposure to international cricket – Joe Denly has bowled in more T20s for England than Parkinson and Crane combined. English cricket – or perhaps English media – has been quick to congratulate itself on finally understanding leg spin enough to allow Adil Rashid to flourish. Yet Parkinson was dismissed as being two slow before his first ball against New Zealand had even pitched, while Crane still seems to be suffering reputational damage from a match he played four years ago, in a different format, in a dead rubber when he was 20 years old. As Crane himself said earlier this year on the ‘Two Hacks One Pro’ podcast, “People don’t want leg spinners, they want Shane Warne”.

Parkinson in particular has the right to feel aggrieved. Since the start of 2017, he has taken 80 T20 wickets at a strike rate of 13.2. There are about fifty other bowlers in world cricket to take as many wickets as him, in that timeframe – but not one of them can match his strike rate. His method is extreme, his average pace (75kph) the lowest for any leg spinner on the planet, but he has justified it. The Blast may not be the highest quality, but he has dominated it for four seasons.

If Rashid’s shoulder goes again, then England have seemingly decided to not pick a wrist-spinner. To throw either Crane or Parkinson into a global tournament with barely a handful of matches between them, may still see them succeed, but it’s a serious gamble.

Elsewhere, there are bolters who could come through. Will Jacks’ winter at Hobart Hurricanes will be drawing the eye of the England selectors, given the Surrey man’s hard-hitting combined with useful off spin makes him the most like-for-like replacement for Moeen. Yet his trajectory into the side would be even steeper than for Crane and Parkinson, laced with the same problems.

The net sum of it all is that England need Moeen Ali to get better if they are going to play two spinners. They don’t yet have an alternative spinning all-rounder, and they don’t appear to fully trust the specialist spinners at their disposal. Moeen isn’t England’s best T20 player – he may end up being the weakest player in the XI, on individual terms – but England need someone to do what he does, and he may still be the best person to do it.

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Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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