Moeen Ali: Underappreciated modern great

Unless you have been living under some cricket related rock this last week, you will have noticed that Moeen Ali has told the BBC Asian Network that he felt he “was always one of the first guys to get the blame” for English test defeats.

Likewise, unless you had been under a similar object for much of the last few years, you will know this to be absolutely correct. I consider it to be fact that Moeen Ali is one of England’s best all-rounders in recent years and potentially ever. It isn’t a viewpoint I’m willing to budge on either and in this article, I hope to explain why.

For some reason, Moeen has been vastly underappreciated almost throughout his entire international career. If you listen to the right people, he is too flashy or not reliable enough. I’m not denying his shortcomings as that would be an entirely romantic and blinkered way of looking at his case, Instead, I want to get across how unfairly he is represented in the media and by fans.

Now, I completely accept his recent omission and his recent break from cricket due to needing a rest. This is completely fine, and his personal wellbeing is far more important than any on-field performance.

Great All Rounders

When we talk about great English all-rounders we instantly think of Stokes, Botham, Flintoff and Greig. These are the benchmarks that any new all-rounder will instantly be measured (rather unfairly) against.

When we are debating great all-rounders, we are often told to look past their batting and bowling averages and consider their impact on games and great moments. This is why I find it perplexing that the argument used against Moeen is that his numbers do not necessarily jump out at you as a specialist of either field. Before the start of this last ashes series, Ben Stokes’ numbers were relatively modest but we always were told to look beyond them because we could always see his undeniable worth.

I have no problem with this philosophy because it is completely accurate, and I agree that Stokes’ contributions are betrayed by a mid-thirties batting average and early thirties bowling average. The problem with this philosophy is it becomes wildly inconsistent when comparing it with the approach people take towards Moeen Ali. People often point to a mid-thirties bowling average and a batting average which (I’ll concede has been very poor in the last year or so) has now dipped a touch below thirty.

I think the thing that most people find hard to support about Moeen is the fact that we have never quite been sure what he is. Is he a batter who can bowl? Is he a bowler who can bat? My problem with this obsession with pigeon-holing him is precisely that, he shouldn’t be dismissed as either, why can’t he be both? This is an issue we are also seeing right now with Sam Curran; can we not just leave these people to become what they clearly have the potential for?

If you don’t believe me about Moeen’s match-winning credentials or his contributions to a winning team, it is worth referring back to a great set of stats set out by Comedian and TMS statistician Andy Zaltzmann. In an article written back in 2018 after England’s dismantling of Sri Lanka (in which Moeen played a key role) Zaltzmann reveals some spectacular figures about Moeens match winning potential with the ball. Moeen has taken four or more wickets in the fourth innings of a test more times than Broad and Anderson combined; his 52 fourth-innings wickets have arrived in just 22 innings and have cost less than 22 each. This average is better than some all-time greats such as, I don’t know, Shane Warne? Graeme Swann? Anil Kumble?

These stats are spectacular and put him among the greatest to ever play the game. His first and second innings averages are not much use but I consider this to be rather insignificant when considering the fact that the role of an English spinner early in a game is almost exclusively to hold an end and dry up runs rather than taking wickets. I’m not for a second suggesting that Moeen is a better bowler than any of the people listed above but his match winning quality late on definitely stands up to comparison which is something that cannot be ignored in my opinion.

Why the Criticism?

Despite comparing favourably in some respects to all-time greats of the game, Moeen remains very underappreciated to some of the English cricketing community. There are a few factors to this in my opinion, firstly I believe that Moeen’s expansive style particularly with the bat has often led to harsher criticism when things are not going his way. This is a legitimate argument but not one I hear levelled at other expansive players. The other thing I think this criticism stems from is the real prejudice still spouted from the mouths (or fingertips) of a noisy minority of people that can’t help but let their outdated ideas of what an English cricketer looks like get in the way of rational thought. This sort of ideology remains pervasive at all levels of society to this day and, whilst we are a far cry from the dark times where these prejudices were voiced widely across the sporting world, it just goes to show how far we are from reaching where we should be in the 21st century.

Moeen Ali is one of the most underappreciated sportspeople in recent English history and I just hope that his recent break from international cricket has made people more aware of this fact. That being said, from those of us that appreciate his brilliance and can forgive the shortcomings of a superb talent, we hope to see him back soon winning games for England in his own inimitable style.

By Michael Vince

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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