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Cricket news - Never an average day for Moeen Ali or England
Nobody was quite sure what to expect from the pitch at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua. Rumours were that the home side wanted extra pace to try and keep the pressure on England's beleaguered batsmen. Instead, they got a bit of everything. There was uneven bounce, there was seam movement, there was, when the bowlers got it right, indeed some pace. There was even some spin for Roston Chase. This would not be a surface on which you would want someone to bat for your life.
If push came to shove, there would be some players you would prefer to have a go, of course. Sir Alastair Cook, now retired, would still be near the top of the list, so too India's Cheteshwar Pujara. South Africa's Dean Elgar wouldn't be far away either. Moeen Ali? Not so much. Yet today, it was him, the most stylish of England's batsmen, who battled it out on a tough pitch against a fired-up bowling attack, getting the tourists to what could turn out to be a competitive total.
Not that Moeen's innings started auspiciously. Fresh from a limp pair in Barbados, he seemed rooted to the crease, uncertain whether to go forward or back. That was no surprise. England's number seven is known as a happy hooker and knew what was coming. Soon enough Shannon Gabriel pinned him on the helmet with a rasping short one. In between times, Moeen played and missed, he mistimed nearly every shot, he got into positions he really didn't want to be in.
It's hard to think he has ever batted as ugly. Given a shaky start and a pitch which presented batsmen with problems throughout the day, it looked for all money that another low score was forthcoming. And Moeen hasn't been short of low scores. Before this game and since his recall to England's Test team during the series against India last year, he had made one half-century in 12 innings. This winter, his average with the bat was 9.75.
But somehow, he managed to end up with 60 runs to his name, an innings which could be pivotal in the outcome of this match and series. There were some trademark Moeen cover drives, with that easy, flowing follow-through that looks so effortless, and a couple of lusty blows off Chase but for most of the time, things were a struggle. He played and missed with regularity and balls dribbled away from his bat in opposite directions from where he aimed but he put away the bad ball and scampered singles where he could. For the main, it was workmanlike and dogged, not two words you would usually use to describe Moeen's batting.
When he was finally dismissed, shanking Kemar Roach to mid-on with an ugly looking swipe to a ball which bounced more than he expected, it sort of summed up the innings. He could have made more but at no stage did he really look like he would get as many as he did. At least the substance had been there even if the aesthetics had not. Given his recent form, it had been quite an effort.
And it raises the question: how do you judge a player like Moeen? He has 57 Tests, 167 wickets and more than 2,700 runs to his name which puts him in the same league as some of England's best all-rounders but his career has been a complex affair.
He is a bowler who can rip through teams like he did against India last summer and Sri Lanka earlier this winter but then he is the same bowler who can get carted all over Australia, as during the last Ashes series, and get to a stage when he was relieved to be dropped from the team. After a brilliant series in Sri Lanka, he went at an unthreatening four and a half runs an over in Barbados.
As a batsman, he has five Test centuries to his name and those such as against Sri Lanka at Headingley in 2014 and against Pakistan at The Oval in 2016 will not be soon forgotten by those who were there to see them. But then he goes through spells without being able to buy a run, such as the one he has just emerged from, and he gets out in ways which suggest carelessness. Today, when Moeen was hit by Gabriel, he was attempting to hook with two men out and a short-leg in place soon after arriving at the crease. Cricketers talk of percentage shots. This wasn't one of them.
Good days and bad don't really cover it for Moeen. Perfect days and calamities are nearer the mark. As Nasser Hussain said on commentary, Moeen never has an average day. It feels like he is either man of the match or close to being dropped.
Which, in many ways, mirrors England's Test cricket. They have players like Moeen, capable of doing things on a cricket field that make people rush to a (paywalled) TV screen but who are also quite capable of dredging the depths of how bad an international Test team can be. That's not hyperbole. That's been proven by results over the past five years. Talented and vibrant they may be but consistent they are not.
But who wouldn't want Moeen Ali in their side when he is capable of both scoring hundreds and taking five-wicket hauls and doing it as beautifully as he does? Who wouldn't want Ben Stokes in their side when he has the ability with the bat, ball and in the field which can change the course of a game as he did in Sri Lanka? Who wouldn't want Jos Buttler in their team when he can do things with a cricket bat that mere mortals wouldn't even contemplate?
Yet the inconsistency of the majority of England's squad is an issue they can't shake. And it's not even the inconsistency itself which is the major problem. Most players have their ups and downs but for England's squad the ups may be sky-high but the downs are positively subterranean. Nothing has epitomised that better than the Barbados defeat following on from a whitewash in Sri Lanka.
Today, Moeen's innings helped avoid a re-run of that crushing failure in Barbados which at one stage, when the tourists had slumped to 93 for 6, looked on the cards in Antigua. That, surely, would have been the series gone. Yet despite not being at his best, and with conditions against him, Moeen got the job done. That has not always been the way of things for him or his team but today it was. And in Test cricket, England need far more of that from everyone.
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