India flummoxed by Moeenalitharan
First day of the series. India have made a cautious start. It is a slow pitch on which stroke-making is not easy. After the early runs through third man, India have been sedate. Half an hour before lunch, Alastair Cook brings on Moeen Ali. Cook has copped a lot of criticism for underutilising Moeen against Sri Lanka. So on comes Moeen. He bowls round the wicket, flights it around off, and Cheteshwar Pujara drives the first ball forcefully. This is the first time Pujara has ever faced Moeen. By the time the over ends, Pujara has hit a four, although this is thanks to a rank full toss. In the next over Pujara is skipping outside the crease. In the second innings of the same Test, Shikhar Dhawan faces Moeen's first ball - again the first time he is playing Moeen - and he goes for an extravagant flick to leg. He survives an lbw shout.
The plan is clear: we don't want to let Moeen bowl. Four Tests into the series, Moeen has taken 19 wickets at 22.94. These are serious numbers. Outside Asia only three spinners have taken more Indian batsmen out in a series. He is one behind Ray Illingworth, five behind Lance Gibbs and nine behind Alf Valentine. Even if you include series in Asia, Moeen is not too far behind: if he takes eight wickets at The Oval, traditionally the most spinner-friendly track in England, his series figures will be among the five best against India. Not quite what you expect of a bowler you did not want to let bowl.
On paper it sounds like a sound plan. The opposition's attack is lop-sided. They have only one spinner, a part-time bowler before the start of this series, who is often the fifth man Cook goes to. If you take runs off him, Cook has to go back to his quicks, who are all carrying miles in their legs. By going after Moeen, you force Cook to do something he does not want to do. Also you add those miles in the fast bowlers' legs, and possibly force them to miss a Test in the series.
A spiffing plan really. Except that India might have both underestimated and overestimated Moeen. They tried to hit the first ball he bowled away. In Southampton Rohit Sharma tried to hit him over the top five minutes before tea and perished. India ended up losing six wickets to him in an innings. They lost. MS Dhoni stuck to the team's guns. "I thought our batsmen played the fast bowlers better, but we allowed Moeen to bowl his line and length," he said. "There was considerable amount of wear and tear on the pitch that went his way, and there were a lot of close-in fielders too were there. I just felt that we could have been a bit more positive against him."
The result of Southampton was batsmen spending hours practising their sweep shot in the lead-up to Manchester. Now Indian players are not natural sweepers. Their natural game of using their feet to get to the pitch of the ball or shortening the length by rocking back works well for them. By now, though, Moeen had gone from one who should not be allowed to bowl to one who should be given special attention. Virat Kohli dedicated entire net sessions to just sweeping. Trevor Penney worked a lot with him. Without doing this, too, Kohli has scored Test centuries against spinners in much more helpful conditions.
At Old Trafford, Kohli managed to face only four balls from Moeen, one of which he swept and nearly holed out to deep square-leg. By going out of their way to first eliminate Moeen and then negate him, India have let Moeen become a big factor in the series. If they had played him normally, like they do other spinners, they would have had the desired results anyway.
Even after Old Trafford, Dhoni said: "It is important to be positive. We will lose a few wickets. He is quite a consistent bowler. He keeps pitching in the same areas. He is quite good and uses the drift. At the same time we will have to put pressure back on him. If in doing that you lose a few wickets that is still good for you because that pushes the opposition to use their fast bowlers more. That is something we will have to follow. Pujara got a tough decision but others he bowled well to get them out."
As a bowler, Moeen is somewhere between what they earlier thought of him and what the numbers suggest now. Against Sri Lanka, in a short span, he took two classic offspinners' wickets. He had Kumar Sangakkara lbw when the ball did not turn and beat his inside edge. Lahiru Thirimanne was bowled after the ball turned and beat the outside edge. He gets some drift too. There is no mystery to him, though. He has two balls: the regulation offbreak and the one that goes straight on. The doosra he hardly ever uses. He even began this series negatively, from round the wicket. Now he is attacking more, bowling from over, and outside off, getting some drift, some dip, and then letting the natural variation from the pitch do the rest.
There might be a lesson in there for Indian spinners too, but by no means is he a demonic spinner that the numbers suggest. Not yet at any rate. On their 2006-07 tour of South Africa, India played Paul Harris with such caution they led to Ravi Shastri's calling him Lord Harris. On this tour India have created Moeenalitharan.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo