By Nick Friend
As England were narrowly out-powered by a strong – if weakened – Australia side on Friday, the opening pair of Ian Bell and Moeen Ali continued to suggest that Eoin Morgan’s side might be more than rank outsiders for the upcoming World Cup.
On a terrific batting strip, Bell and Ali raced to a century opening stand – a huge improvement on their previous effort against their opponents when Mitchell Starc removed both Bell and James Taylor within the first three balls of the match.
For once, Ali appeared calm at the crease, allowing Bell – who would later pass Paul Collingwood as England’s highest ever one-day run scorer – to seize the early initiative. He caressed the unthreatening seamers through cover and lofted gloriously down the ground in a way that makes one wonder how the Warwickshire man has only made four hundreds in this particular format.
It is a mightily attractive opening combination that England have stumbled across – though more through luck than judgement. With Alastair Cook dropped prior to the tour, Ali only given his breakthrough in Sri Lanka due to the need for two spinners and Alex Hales’ struggle for runs early in his ODI career, England’s thinking has clearly been muddled – but when was the last time England didn’t look muddled in one-day cricket? Once Cook’s travails had finally forced the hand of his most staunch supporters, he had steered England to six series defeats out of eight.
Ali’s emergence, not only as a slayer of Indian batsmen in the English summer with the ball, but also as a brutal and fearless one-day pinch-hitter has been the most silver of linings to the cloud of Cook’s ultimately lost battle against his footwork. Make no mistake, Ali has – and will continue to – find novel ways of getting dismissed. But that comes with the territory. He is being asked to rattle along at a strike rate of 140. Much like Jos Buttler’s ‘finisher’ role, it won’t always come off. However, his ability to free up his fellow batsmen makes him indispensable to this team.
For years England have lacked a replacement for Marcus Trescothick. In Ali, they may have found the one. Equally adept at attacking off front and back foot, the Worcestershire man hooked the lively Pat Cummins for three successive sixes. Previously, it was suggested that he had a weakness against the short ball – a claim refuted by both Ali and his county coach Steve Rhodes. Since his arrival in November in Sri Lanka, he has shown no signs of the awkward limbo-like positions adopted whilst facing Varun Aaron in 2014.
Perhaps, much like Andrew Flintoff in England’s 2005 Ashes-winning side, Ali would be best served transferring this gung-ho style to the Test arena. With a solid spine of Cook, Gary Ballance, Joe Root and Ian Bell – with the possible return of Jonathan Trott in place of Sam Robson alongside the captain – Ali’s extravagance could act as the knockout punch following a top five capable of throwing steady jabs.
The make-up of England’s Test side is a different matter entirely. For the next two months, the focus is the World Cup and Moeen Ali is central to their success. His runs give England the fast start that they will desperately need on pitches where records will be broken. Only last week did AB de Villiers smash Corey Anderson’s record for the fastest ODI ton. His 149 came from just 44 deliveries. For New Zealand, coming in at 152-5, Luke Ronchi hit an unbeaten 90-ball 170. As Australia showed England on Friday, 300 simply will not be sufficient on flat wickets, with outrageous batsmanship and tiny boundaries – especially at grounds such as Napier where the square boundaries are just 50 metres.
As well as his runs, Ali’s off-breaks are crucial to the balance of England’s side. It allows Peter Moores to pick his four best seamers: Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Steve Finn and Chris Woakes. If Ali were to struggle, James Tredwell would come in at the expense of one of them. Yet, as Morgan mentioned after defeat in the first game of the tour, the boundaries are so short Down Under that there is no guarantee that Tredwell would not go the distance. For what it’s worth, Ali was the pick of England’s bowlers, his ten overs going for just fifty runs – together with the wickets of Aaron Finch and Glenn Maxwell. He has a knack of dismissing good players. Indeed, the very best – Kumar Sangakkara – has fallen victim to him on five separate occasions.
He is a hugely underrated customer. While opposition sides continue to underestimate him, England are under no such illusions. At a time when ECB politics has seen much of the British public fall out of love with their national side, he has become the cricketer of the people – cavalier, brave, fearless and aggressive. Indeed, his image now adorns the cover of 2015’s Wisden Almenack.
Opening batsman and key bowler is reminiscent of junior club cricket. But in Moeen Ali, England have found a man on whose shoulders, World Cup success or abject failure could rest.