England's stop-gap turned vital ingredient

After playing just about every role in the Test side, the spinning allrounder's dual day two milestones underlined his importance

When people discuss the world’s best allrounders, Moeen Ali’s name is not one that is likely to crop up anywhere close to the top of the list.

However, the 30-year-old deserves to be right up there after he became the second-fastest England player to score 2,000 Test runs and take 100 wickets.

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He is just the seventh Englishman to achieve the feat and he joins Indian Ravi Shastri as the only player to reach both landmarks in the same match.

Moeen reached his milestone with the ball when his off-spin took the wicket of stand-in South Africa captain Dean Elgar on the second evening of this first Test at Lord’s. He passed 2,000 runs earlier in the day during an innings of 87 – his 10th Test half-century – that helped England post 458 batting first.

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Moeen’s 99th wicket was actually the highlight of the day from an England bowling perspective given it was Hashim Amla, a man who scored an unbeaten 311 in the first Test when South Africa last toured England five years ago.

Yet Moeen’s achievement is remarkable chiefly because although nobody is quite sure of his best role in the team, he has made himself indispensable since making his Test debut in the northern summer of 2014.

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Initially, the Birmingham-born allrounder was seen as a stop-gap replacement for retired spinner Graeme Swann, a status that was enhanced when later that summer he bowled magnificently against India, taking 19 wickets at 23 to help his country overturn a 1-0 deficit and win the series 3-1.

Australia, of course, encountered Moeen during the 2015 Ashes in England, when his stats from that series don’t tell the full story – which was that he picked up some crucial wickets at crucial times and also delivered important lower-order runs from No.8.

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Moeen’s undoubted ability with the bat – he has always really been seen as a batsman who can bowl – saw him promoted to opener for England’s series against Pakistan in the UAE later that year.

It didn’t work out.

Remarkably, in Test cricket, Moeen has batted at every position in the order from one to nine.

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However, his place at No7 now seems where he is set to stay. The decision to go with left-arm spinner Liam Dawson for this Lord’s Test signalled the decision from England’s Australian coach Trevor Bayliss that Moeen was selected chiefly for his batting.

Despite the added pressure, Moeen responded with a fine counter-attacking innings. The wickets he picked up later in the day were a bonus, if not a total surprise given his aptitude for performing above expectations when people least expect him to.

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Moeen’s travails with the ball during England’s last series in India late last year, where he failed to take advantage of helpful conditions and was outperformed convincingly by teammate and leg-spinner Adil Rashid, appears to have convinced Bayliss that this is a player who should be regarded from now on mainly as a batsman.

But Moeen’s all-round achievements in his 38 Tests so far mean he should be regarded in the same company as Ben Stokes.

All-round duo: Stokes and Moeen in Bangladesh last year // Getty
All-round duo: Stokes and Moeen in Bangladesh last year // Getty

Stokes, who has played five fewer Tests than Moeen, needs 98 runs and 21 wickets to reach his teammate’s landmark. Whether he will get there in quicker time looks touch and go.

As it is for now, Moeen can sit back and enjoy his achievement knowing it has come despite the fact he has never had a settled role in the Test team. To say he has been messed around would be overstepping the mark – but not by far. Indeed, to say he is England’s most dependable player would be spot on.

Speaking earlier this northern summer, Moeen spoke about the challenge of having to constantly adapt.

“I feel, even though it’s difficult, it’s making me a better player all the time,” he said.

“I hope I’m going into my peak years, and it’s making me better – because I’ve been in situations not many openers or top three have been in, batting with the tail.

“With the ball as well, I feel like I’m getting better. I'm much more comfortable as a cricketer than I was three years ago.”

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On his achievement at Lord’s, Moeen added: “If somebody had told me when I started out that I’d end up with these stats then I’d have bitten their hand off so it’s a great feeling to do it on the same day at Lord’s. 

“There have been loads of ups and downs and with the ball, I feel like it has almost been learning on the job a bit as well. I’m going to have bad days, I know that, but I was really happy with the way I bowled today.”

When England arrive in Australia later this year for the Ashes, Stokes is likely to grab most of the headlines initially.

But don’t count out Moeen having a major impact, especially as he’s at his most dangerous when people least expect him to perform.

Fastest to 2,000 runs and 100 wickets (in Tests)

31 - Shakib Al Hasan (BAN)

36 - Trevor Goddard (SA)

37 - Tony Greig (ENG)

37 - Keith Miller (AUS)

38 - Moeen Ali (ENG)

39 - Vinoo Mankad (IND)

42 - Ian Botham (ENG)