England took control of the first Test match in Galle as their spinners ran riot on Day 2. Patrick Noone looks at the role played by Moeen Ali as his 4-66 put the visitors on course to victory.
It seems as though there has been constant debate about Moeen Ali’s role in the side ever since he came into the England Test team back in 2014. Though he was the sole spinner in the side, many still perceived him as a batsman who could bowl a bit, rather than a frontline spinner. Then he was shunted up and down the order: from number six to number eight to opening the batting, back to eight, then up to five, back down to eight and now up to three; his nomadic career with the bat has come to symbolise the uncertainty surrounding his role in the England team.
There was then the curious period during the English summer of 2017 when Liam Dawson was brought into the team as ‘first-choice’ spinner because Moeen was said to be more comfortable playing second fiddle. Despite that, Dawson lasted just two Tests against South Africa before being dropped while Moeen would go on to seal victory with a hat-trick in the third Test at the Oval. Since then, Moeen has been dropped after a poor winter in Australia and New Zealand before returning to the side for the fourth Test against India last summer. He duly put in a match-winning performance in Southampton and all seemed well again.
Today, Joe Root threw the ball to Jack Leach before the more experienced Moeen, so perhaps the Worcestershire man is once again the second spinner. One could argue it matters little what his nominal role is if he continues to put in performances like today’s in Galle where he appeared to have recovered all the confidence and guile that had drained away before his omission from the side.
Moeen finished his work with the ball with figures of 4-66, his second best return in a Test match innings on Asian soil. His success was based around a willingness to give the ball flight and pitch it up – Moeen has never bowled fuller or slower in an away Test match innings.
He bowled the bulk of his deliveries to right-handers – 81% to be precise – and dug a trench outside their off-stump with not a single ball pitching in line with the stumps. He was playing for the prodigious turn (5.5° on average) on offer and relying on that and the natural variation that caused the odd one to go straight on to cause problems. 51% of the balls he bowled to right-handers were on a good line and length. Only twice before in his Test career has he bowled 100 balls or more to right-handers and landed more than half on a good line and length.
Ostensibly, Moeen continually put the ball in a dangerous area, built pressure and was rewarded. It sounds simple, but control is something that England have been desperate for from their spinner ever since Graeme Swann retired. Moeen hasn’t always provided it, even when he’s been taking wickets and bowling England to victory, but today’s performance was one of his most well-rounded in an England shirt.
Moeen was just one of a number of players who have put England in an exceptional position in this Test match. Ben Foakes’ hundred on debut laid the platform with the bat before Moeen’s fellow spinners, Jack Leach and Adil Rashid also impressed as part of a three-pronged spin attack.
An encouraging sign for England fans was that Root was able to rotate the spinners in a way that got the best out of each of them. In the past, when England have toured the subcontinent and packed their XI with spinners, previous captains have at times been unsure who to use and when to use them. That was not the case today as all three found a role, including Moeen, the player whose role is more transient than any other. However one chooses defines his role today, it cannot be argued that he looked back to his best with the ball in hand.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.