Since coming into the side during a tumultuous 2014 period, Moeen Ali has been a shining light for England, an unsung beacon of optimism and positivity in this attacking and – occasionally – kamikaze team. His batting has dazzled and frustrated in equal measure, his bowling has surprised and irritated. Regularly caught hooking or wafting languidly into an expectant cordon, dishing up half-trackers and the occasional beamer to coincide with a host of match-winning performances, it has been – thus far – a career built on the unexpected. He is the kind of player that, in previous eras, may not have flourished so seamlessly.
Yet, in this digital age where scrutiny exists like in no other, the devout Muslim from an unfashionable county finds himself virtually undroppable, an key cog in England’s wheel. Rarely in English cricket has a man propelled himself to such cult status. It was there for all to see at The Oval as, on a pitch offering very little to encourage him, he spun his way to a match-sealing hat-trick. Perhaps, the odds were in his favour; the crowd’s cheers fuelled by the innings’ third hat-trick ball, Morne Morkel on strike, a shedload of runs to play with, an claustrophobic close field. Yet a hat-trick was almost written in the stars for a man whose intense popularity continues to rise.
Moeen speaks honestly about his religion and the consequences of recent atrocities. He is equally candid when discussing his cricket and the future of the sport for fellow Asians in his childhood city of Birmingham.
His obsession with being the second spinner, although an outwardly absurd notion – for there is no better spinner in the country than Moeen – highlights a humility that matches his soft Brummie accent but that belies his swashbuckling style with the bat. David Gower comparisons, audible gasps of awe as he unfurls that lazy swing to caress the world’s best bowlers through extra cover with utter disdain, there can be no better number eight in Test cricket.
On top of this lavish strokeplay, there is another side to Moeen’s game that has put him at one with the public. Indeed, so entertained has he kept the punters that never once can I recall question marks over his place. Yes, his off-breaks have been debated – he is the top wicket-taker in this series, by the way – but the debates have never surrounded his selection.
His versatility has made him crucial. He has batted everywhere from one to nine in England’s ever-muddled line-up, batting unbeaten for 281 balls as he attempted to fruitlessly stave off defeat against Sri Lanka in 2014. So too has he been selfless, regularly throwing his bat alongside the tail, sacrificing a greater average for the side’s benefit.
When Alastair Cook called Moeen the “unsung hero” of the side last week, he could scarcely have been more correct. The joy from team-mates and spectators as Joel Wilson’s decision was overturned to complete an historic hat-trick merely served to underpin the loveable appeal of England’s unlikely star.