Monday 28 January 2019

First Test notes: Moeen's Immaculate Disaster

Moeen Ali is a poetic cricketer, a cricketer to watch, and almost everything he does is worth watching. When he has a bad Test, or a bad tour, he accommodates failure in his own way.

The first innings in Barbados was a lovely example of this. Advance publicity on Moeen is that the short ball can unsettle him. His instinct is to hook, but he knows that he probably shouldn't, and in going against instinct he has created a problem for himself. When his first delivery from Kemar Roach came flying down, chest high and on the line of his body, he did no more than offer the bat horizontally before the ball was on him, but being Moeen, a poetic cricketer to whom things happen, the merest shiver of the blade in his hands was enough to send a top edge almost eighty yards into the maw of long leg. It was an immaculate disaster.

With players like Moeen, it doesn't always matter what they do, but how they do it. His dismissal may have left the team in further trouble and the dressing room in high dudgeon, but it had flair. It had drama. It had humour, the very black kind that makes you laugh at the ridiculousness of it all - of cricket and of life.

When he was thirteen years old, Moeen scored 195 in a T20 game, a knock of which his younger brother Omar says, 'it is nearly twenty years since that evening, but it is by far the greatest innings I have seen in cricket.' That's because Moeen is an aesthete and the things he does and the way he does them live on in the mind. In that sense he's kin to any number of otherwise disparate sportsmen, from Alex Higgins to Herol Graham or even George Best, where it's not really about numbers or statistics but what you remember of them [incidentally, Higgins once took this line too far in an argument with Jimmy White over a hotel room, of which Higgins claimed occupancy, "because he was an aesthete" and would appreciate it in a way that Jimmy wouldn't. Yet as the man who reported on the row, Jonathan Rendall, pointed out, so was Jimmy White, perhaps even more so than Higgins*].

It's something that pragmatists, of which there are many in sport, never get. England didn't so much have a bad day at the office in Barbados as drive to the office pathetically late and then crash through the wall while trying to park the car. But like Prince Philip, they'll simply have a gleaming new Land Rover delivered the next morning and start driving again, ignoring the deeper problem that it's not the broken car, it's the fact that they're 97 years old - or in England's case, that they are a team full of all rounders, three of which are wicketkeepers.

Moeen's destiny is in sharp focus because of it. He is, clearly, a batsman who bowls, yet England need a bowler who bats, and he will be caught in this cleft forever now. Perhaps his personality is not quite forceful enough to escape, in the way that Ben Stokes' has been. Moeen's batting is as under-rated as Stokes' is over-rated, and in both cases that is by a little rather than a lot. Steve Harmison once said of Stokes that if England treated him like a number eight, then he would bat like one. Well Moeen has not so much been treated as a number eight as something mutable, shiftable, disposable.

Imagine, briefly, that England had the top five that took them to the number one ranking they again crave: Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell. Would Stokes get into that? He would not, which suggests he is a not a genuine Test match number five, any more than he is a number eight. Of England's other middle-order players, Bairstow at his best might challenge an out of sorts Bell; Jos Buttler for sure has some of the mad and imaginative genius of Pietersen, if not the adrenalised swagger that enabled Pietersen to do it from debut.

And Moeen? Well not now, but there is an alternative universe in which his talent and difference were embraced and nurtured in the way that Ian Bell's were. At his best, Moeen is that good, that beautiful, that aesthetic and it is England's loss that his is a path not taken. The pragmatists will never get it, but this is an immaculate disaster.

* From memory, the upshot of this stoush was that Higgins refused to yield and spent three days sleeping in the bath.