It was a pretty different world when Moeen Ali last played Test cricket for England.
The ECB were phasing out the bio-bubbles which had been a condition of the sport’s continuation during Covid-19, bringing relief to players who had basically been left in isolation for most of the previous year. Meanwhile, England were a team batting around 2.5 to 3.3 runs per over under Joe Root and had just fallen 2-1 down against India in a series which had seen their poor run stretch to one win in nine Tests. Much has changed since September 2021.
After the postponement of the Fifth Test due to a Covid outbreak in the India camp, Moeen said that he was done with the five-day game, stating that his heart wasn’t fully into the longest form of the sport. Following a chat with new coach Brendon McCullum in 2022 he initially decided that he would make himself available once more, but within months he was announcing his retirement for a second time, explaining to the Daily Mail:
“’Baz’ phoned me, we spoke at length and I said: ‘Sorry, I’m done.’ He understands, he knows the feeling. Test cricket is hard work. I’m 35 and something’s got to give.
“I want to enjoy my cricket and it wouldn’t be fair to reverse my decision and then struggle to give it my all. It’s time to close the door on that side of my career. To play 64 Tests for England has been a privilege and a dream fulfilled.”
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Now, in June 2023, Moeen is back after coming out of retirement to play for England in the Ashes series against Australia which begins at Edgbaston next Friday. After Jack Leach’s back injury was confirmed, many a spinner was cited as a potential replacement but the appetite to persuade the 35-year-old proved too strong.
Why Moeen, and not Liam Dawson, or Rehan Ahmed, or Will Jacks? Because this is the Ashes, that’s why. It is the pinnacle of the Test cricket cycle in much the same way that World Cups are the goal in many another sport.
Would Gareth Southgate play Fikayo Tomori or Marc Guehi over Harry Maguire at a football World Cup? Why didn’t Shaun Wane seriously consider choosing Mikey Lewis or Ben McNamara over George Williams for last autumn’s Rugby League World Cup? It’s because major tournaments are not the moment for experimentation.
There is no time for bedding in a player during the Ashes. A 1-0 deficit can be fatal. Bring in a spinner who gets knocked around and it can set the team back for the entire series and the player himself for their whole career. What became of Simon Kerrigan when he was called up for the Fifth Test in 2013? He took 0-53 in eight overs and was never seen again.
And it’s not just spinners. How many openers have England trialled in Ashes series and then never picked again? Jason Roy, Michael Carberry, Adam Lyth, Haseeb Hameed… all four of them struggled against the Aussies and haven’t been seen since. This is a contest that is not for the faint-hearted, and McCullum and Ben Stokes know enough about Moeen Ali to know that he can contribute on the big stage.
That’s why this move makes sense. Sure, it’s a kick in the teeth for the likes of Jacks and Rehan in the short term, but their careers could actually benefit from this episode. Rehan, in particular, has a great Test future ahead of him if his experiences so far are anything to go by, but the risk of him being belted around by Australian batting and suffering psychologically at the age of just 18 is not worth gambling on.
The inclusion of Moeen might not be considered a sexy one, or a forward-thinking one, but people thought that of Ashley Giles in 2005 and that turned out OK in the end. Discretion is the better part of valour, they say. And in a ‘Bazball’ era of taking risks here, there and everywhere with the bat, it makes sense to choose the known over the unknown when it comes to curating the bowling line-up.
Besides, Moeen throwing the bat around at number eight is as ‘Bazball’ as it gets.
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