Moeen Ali walks off the Test stage having achieved more than he ever dreamed of growing up and hopes his eight-year career in the longest format has paved the way for cricketers from a similar background to follow in his footsteps.
Speaking to the Guardian and ESPNCricinfo, Moeen confirmed that, after 64 appearances laced with dizzying highs and maddening lows, five elegant centuries and 195 wickets, he now intends to specialise in white-ball cricket.
With this came a typically honest admission that, aged 34 and having recently returned to Joe Root’s England side against India this summer, he was struggling to summon the required focus for Test cricket. He leaves with a sense of “unfinished business” as regards this winter’s Ashes – a tour that proved chastening in 2017-18 – but a firm belief that now is the right time.
“It’s been a good journey,” said Moeen. “But during the India series I felt like I was done, to be honest. I felt good, the atmosphere felt good, the dressing room etc, but cricketing-wise, I found it a struggle to get in the zone bowling and batting and in the field. And the more I tried, I just couldn’t do it.
“I was thinking about the Ashes and how I would love to have gone back and done well there. But it’s such a long trip if I’m not ‘in it’ and I think it’d be very, very difficult. And if I felt like I did against India when I was out there, then I would probably retire after one match. So it’s done.”
Last week Moeen informed Root, Chris Silverwood, England’s head coach, and Ashley Giles, director of cricket, as the trio form plans for Australia. He also talked it through with Munir, the father who has passionately supported his cricket from a young age, his brothers, Kadeer and Omar, and his wife, Firuza.
Root expressed sadness the pair would not play together again, Silverwood empathised after similar feelings at the end of his own first-class career, while Giles told him he should be proud of achievements that include an Ashes win in 2015, a hat-trick at the Oval in 2017 and, more recently, the vice-captaincy.
Moeen is first to admit a Test batting average of 28 fell short of expectations for a player of such abundant, eye-catching talent. It was, after all, his route into the Test side at No 6 in 2014 under head coach Peter Moores, with his off-breaks only ever intended to offset the loss of Graeme Swann, not fully replace him.
But despite a near seven-hour unbeaten 108 against Sri Lanka in his second Test outing – the innings he rates as his best, even though England’s bid to save the match was thwarted with two balls to spare – over time Moeen found himself moving up and down the order to suit the team’s needs.
It began when Ben Stokes took over the No 6 berth in 2015 in a bid to jump-start his form and Moeen has batted in every position from one to nine since. Even when he signed off a year of four centuries in 2016 with 146 against India in Chennai from No 4, he still dropped down to No 7 the following summer.
Moeen said: “I look back and think I could have been a bit more ‘on it’ with the bat. It wasn’t easy because we were trying to get the balance of the team and I felt like I was the guy moving up and down a lot more than other guys. I think anybody would be quite unstable [as a result].
“Obviously Stokesy turned out to be an amazing player but I sometimes feel, maybe, that could have been me if I was given a bit more of a run [at No 6]. But it’s fine. I didn’t always have the temperament or the technique but I certainly feel if I’d been given a run somewhere for a while I’d have been fine.
“And five Test hundreds is still a decent amount. To get four in a year was great. Rooty [six so far in 2021] is the only English guy to do better in recent years. So, yeah, I look back and 100% I did better than I thought I could do. Even though now I feel like I could have done better.”
Moeen acknowledges his team-first ethos and the flexibility of being an all-rounder fed into this and that fewer caps might have resulted otherwise. And certainly with the ball he went well beyond the early label of “part-timer”, developing into a spinner who, though never one to hold up an end, generated drift, dip and turn and proved a potent match-winner.
“That’s, that’s actually one thing I’m really proud of,” he said. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would get nearly 200 wickets. And not just the wickets, I think the players I got out as well. I felt like I could, with my best ball, get anybody out. That was a good feeling.”
A sliding doors moment in his relationship with Test cricket came in 2019. Before that summer’s Ashes he had been the leading wicket-taker in the world over the previous 12 months, claiming 44 at an average 23, yet after one rusty performance in the first Test at Edgbaston he was dropped.
Then, when recognising the strains of having played all three formats for five years – only Root and Jos Buttler played more during this time – he asked for a short break from the longest format, only to lose his Test central contract . Had a more enlightened response from England followed – as has been the case with Stokes this summer – things might be different now.
“That did break me a little bit,” he said. “I had a poor game, yes, and rightly got dropped. I don’t mind getting dropped if you’re not playing well.
“I look back and it’s no excuse at all but towards the end of the World Cup I didn’t play. We had a Test against Ireland, in which I hardly got bowled, and then we had two days of training indoors before the Ashes because it rained so much. So I didn’t really get the preparation I needed. But I felt like I was still at the peak of my bowling – the best I’ve ever been – prior to that in Test cricket.
“And then I didn’t get a contract, because I asked for a break, and I was told it was because they weren’t sure how much I was going to play. So it was just very disappointing at the time. Then I just looked to crack on, played franchise cricket, but then possibly took too long to make my way back into the team.”
Getting back in “the zone” was tough, not least when catching Covid-19 at the start of this year scuppered his intended comeback in Sri Lanka. An eight-wicket Test followed in India, including a ripper to bowl Virat Kohli, a batsman he has removed six times. But this summer, having answered an SOS call after the loss of Stokes and Chris Woakes unbalanced the team, proved informative.
Nevertheless, Moeen is “happy and content” with a career of nine series wins that saw him personally finish up just 86 runs and five wickets away from becoming the 15th Test cricketer to an all-rounder’s double of 3,000 and 200.
The peak arguably came in 2017 against South Africa, when he became just the second England all-rounder after Ian Botham to take 25 wickets and score 250 runs in a series. It featured his memorable hat-trick at the Oval and an unbeaten 67 at Old Trafford that he will remember as the most fun he had at the crease.
“The crowd was going mad and my son [Abu Bakr] was old enough to understand the songs. After that day he really loved cricket. He enjoyed it before but it was the tipping point where he said ‘cricket’s the sport I’m going to play’.”
It may be that Moeen’s Test career has broader impact along these lines in years to come, having grown up in inner-city Birmingham and been shouldered with the burden of representing the British Asian community and the Muslim faith in an England shirt. He never asked for this responsibility but never shirked it either.
“I probably didn’t realise how big it is, but it is a huge thing,” he said. “It didn’t feel like a burden, but I did feel like there was a bigger purpose for me than just batting and bowling. There was a purpose of trying to inspire others.
“It always takes somebody to inspire you or [make you] say ‘if he can do it, so can I’. I hope there is someone out there who is thinking that. I certainly felt that when I first saw [South Africa’s] Hashim Amla on TV. It does take a little spark. I’d love in 10 years time, somebody to say ‘Moeen made it easier for me’.”
It was not always straightforward. Moeen feels his role model status was often highlighted during the good times, but perhaps hinted at unfairly in reverse by detractors when he struggled for form; as if some felt his place in the side wasn’t just about cricketing ability.
He also had an early taste of how the spotlight worked when, during the Southampton Test in 2014 against India, he generated headlines for wearing “Save Gaza, Free Palestine” wristbands on the field of play. England backed him for displaying a humanitarian message, rather than a political one, but he was told to remove them by the ICC match referee and a public debate followed.
“I felt if I did something, then the news would break out more,” he said. “That’s what it felt like to me, anyway. And from the start really, from the whole wearing the Palestinian wristbands, which for me was a proud moment.”
This outlook, one that goes beyond cricket, combined with a laid-back personality and a cover-drive that couldn’t be sweeter if dipped in treacle, is why swathes of England supporters have taken him to their hearts over the years. It is a relationship that has worked both ways too.
Asked for his message to fans, Moeen replied: “It’s a huge thank you. I’ve had some amazing support and I genuinely have appreciated it. The one group of fans that I would definitely praise is the Barmy Army. It’s massive.
“I remember there was a time where I wasn’t playing so well, and throughout the whole day they just kept singing my name and encouraging me. They are an amazing group of supporters and the heartbeat of Test cricket in England.”
Moeen is by no means finished and, looking ahead, wants to turn his final years as a white-ball specialist into silverware. As well as hoping to repay his £700,000 deal at Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League, he says he will throw “everything” into helping England win the two T20 World Cups in the next two years, as well as the defence of their 50-over title in 2023.
That said, his advice to younger players, along with avoiding the pitfalls of criticism on social media and from ex-pros on commentary, is to still strive for Test cricket.
“Cherish playing for England, because the time does fly.” he said. “I’ll miss the buzz at Lord’s and the noise at Edgbaston. And in Test cricket, when you have a good day, it is a better feeling than any other format by far.”
“It is more rewarding and you feel like you’ve earned it. Very rarely do you bowl poorly and get five wickets, or bat poorly and get a hundred. You’ve done something really well. Those feelings are amazing and Test cricket is amazing.”