After a poor winter, Moeen Ali has been dropped from the England team. Ben Jones looks at the data to explain what went wrong for the Beard That’s Feared.
Ashes defeats tend to bring renewal. Poor performances on the highest stage for English cricketers can see established careers ended swiftly, as an unforgiving public call for blood in the wake of defeat. Yet after a disastrous winter, during which England have lost five of the seven Tests they have played and are winless since September, only two players have been dropped from the team. One is James Vince, who has offered moments of sumptuous quality with the bat, but with little to no substance in terms of runs. The other is Moeen Ali.
The same Moeen Ali who less than nine months ago became the first ever to take 25 wickets and score 250 runs in a four-match Test series, but now finds himself looking at a summer of County Championship cricket, and white ball duty for his country.
“Okay”, you might chime in. “Perhaps that was a purple patch for Mo, and he’s never been able to sustain that success?” Quite the contrary, fictional critic; only four English spinners have taken more wickets in England than the 82 managed by Moeen, in the history of the game. All of the four bowlers above him on that list have played more than the 50 Tests the Worcestershire man has clocked up.
Yet despite this undeniably impressive record, Moeen seems unlikely to begin the English summer as their No.1 spinner, with few grumbles from fans and journalists alike. So why has the country’s collective cricketing patience run out for Moeen Ali?
One reason is that his poor tour of Australia (where he averaged 115) was not an anomaly. It points to a more long-running problem in the all-rounder’s game, that despite his excellence on home soil, there has been frustration with his form outside of England. In home Tests he averages 33.47 with the ball; away from home, he averages 52.27. In contrast to the slim number of players ahead of him in the record-books in England, a grand total of 15 English spinners have taken more wickets than Moeen away from home, and six of those players have done so in fewer matches.
Of course, part of the reason for his home dominance is the collective pressure built by an English bowling unit at its best in those conditions. Tied down by Anderson and his cronies hooping the ball around corners, visiting batsmen are forced to attack Moeen without due respect to his bowling, and attacking Moeen in England is a perilous mission, as shown below.
However, away from home on harder pitches (Australia and South Africa), or with England’s battery of seamers less of a threatening prospect (India), Moeen can be approached with a touch more caution. India, South Africa and Australia are not just the countries where Moeen is attacked most successfully, they are also the countries where he is attacked the least.
So, when the support from his seam bowling unit isn’t there, Moeen is seemingly unable to create and sustain pressure alone. This likely feeds into a second clear failing in his game; a recurring inability to lay a glove on genuinely top-class opposition. He’s played in 15 Test series, but in only three of those has he had a lower average with the ball than the England team as a whole, those series being India’s tour of England in 2014, England’s tour of Bangladesh in 2016, and South Africa’s tour of England in 2017. In other words, Moeen has rarely stood out as England’s key bowler, and has consistently underperformed with the ball compared with his teammates.
Equally, he has struggled in high-profile series,the ones where casual fans are drawn to watch and thus inevitably, to criticise. Moeen has played in four five-match Test series (the general signifier of flagship contests), and has averaged less than 60 with the ball in only one of them.
Ever since that first summer against India in 2014, the Sparkhill-born all-rounder has struggled to be a man for the big occasion, preferring a more reserved role as the consummate team performer.
By contrast with his bowling performances, he’s averaged more with the bat than England’s top seven on six occasions, which in a bizarre manner has been a problem in itself. Much has been made of the balance of England’s team in the Trevor Bayliss era. The surfeit of all-round options, often selecting a team including Stokes, Woakes, Bairstow, as well as Moeen, has seen the lower middle-order become jammed with talent. Yet despite his general position being below Stokes in the batting order, Moeen has always been more of a batting all-rounder than a bowling one. The universal barometer for an all-rounder’s ability is whether they average less with the ball than they do with the bat, and by this metric Moeen falls down yet again. He has only done so in two series, albeit the last two main English summer series, against South Africa and Pakistan.
Also, Moeen’s constant battle with Stokes for the batting all-rounder’s position reflects well on the Durham man, who has averaged more with the bat than Moeen in seven of the thirteen series they have played together, and has had a lower bowling average in nine of those series. In a straight contest between Stokes and Moeen, Stokes is destined to come out on top.
However, these are all consequences, the effects of a fundamental change in Moeen’s style as a bowler. After selecting him in 2014, England have taken a bowler who was loose and erratic but capable of bowling wicket-taking deliveries, and grooved him into a consistent but unthreatening automaton. Nowhere is this made more evident than in the variation of his bowling speed, or rather his ever diminishing variation.
Speed has always been a key element of Moeen’s attack. As the graph below shows, he is the second fastest of his off-spinning contemporaries, yet simply average in terms of aggregate turn. Ever since that chance conversation with, depending on who you believe, Ian Bell or Kumar Dharmasena, Moeen’s quicker bowling speed has been a defining aspect of his action.
Of course, as is true of fast bowlers, variation of pace is often the more incisive partner to raw speed, something which Moeen instinctively understands. In his first summer of Test cricket, he varied his speed by more than 35kph. Yet, as shown below, every year Moeen has played Test cricket the variation of his bowling speed has declined.
In that time, as his speeds have become ever more predictable, so has his pitchmap. Some may suggest this is a good thing; Moeen’s action has become more “metronomic”, “controlled”, even “classical”. After all, Moeen’s supposed inaccuracy was oft-asserted as a reason why he would never succeed in Test cricket.
He has undoubtedly become a more accurate bowler – in his first summer of international cricket, Moeen dropped 32% of his deliveries short, and in 2018 has dropped short with just 21% of his deliveries. But in that first summer he averaged 28.09 with the ball; in 2018 he’s averaging 114.50.
So don’t question why Moeen has been dropped; ask why the best spin bowler in the country has got progressively more unthreatening with every game he’s played. In his first 20 Tests, relying on the skills honed at New Road and throughout his career, Moeen averaged 35.67 with the ball. Since then, he’s averaged 44.93.
Has England’s refusal to hire a full-time spin bowling coach adversely affected Moeen’s progression? Is it perhaps too much to ask that a player be asked to bat and bowl in all formats while simultaneously being asked to single-handedly raise his game to the required standard?
Could you even ask if the obsession with making a Moeen a more accurate bowler, removing his rugged, threatening edges, has actually caused the overseas issues for which he’s been dropped? As he’s improved his accuracy, he’s got better at home, but worse away, the wicket-taking deliveries slowly removed from his armoury. With this metronomic, inert style, he’s never been better placed to hoover up Broad and Anderson’s scraps, and he’s never been worse placed to threaten quality batsmen overseas. Was that the aim?
Regardless, Moeen Ali’s Test career is unlikely to be over. With a tour to Sri Lanka coming later this year, the place of second spinner is up for grabs, and by default you would say Moeen is in pole position as things stand. Jack Leach is the man in possession, but the selectors would no doubt love to see Moeen go back to County Cricket and tear it up. Yet for now, one of the most gifted cricketers in the country is out of the side, and that should be a cause of frustration for all.