Role model Moeen setting high standard
A bad back in the nets when he was 14 may have been the moment that defined Moeen Ali's career. Early in his days in the Warwickshire youth set-up he bowled seam-up, but an injury prompted him to tell Steve Perryman, the then bowling coach at Edgbaston, that he was able to send down a few spinners. Two balls was all it took before Perryman told Moeen, "Right, you are a spinner from now."
Fast forward to August 2014 and he sits on the verge of having the most successful series by an England spinner against India. Currently he has 19 wickets at 22.94 following two match-winning spells at the Ageas Bowl and Old Trafford, giving England a 2-1 lead in the Investec Test series. Even if you disregard the endless suggestions that he was no more than a "part-time" spinner to begin with, it is a remarkable story.
"I don't know how I'm getting these wickets but I'm happy to," he said with a laugh, reflecting on a few weeks which have strengthened what had already been a developing cult status within English cricket.
MS Dhoni has insisted India need to attack Moeen, but there is more than a suggestion that the visitors have not adjusted their gameplans in line with Moeen's improvement. At Old Trafford their attitude to him was brazen.
"They felt I was an easy target, a guy they could get easy runs from, which has helped me quite a bit," Moeen said. "If they attack me, now I'm bowling well, I've got a chance. But they're very good players of spin. I don't know how I'm getting these wickets but I'm happy to! I feel like I'm on top and I feel I can get players out."
He has also largely shelved the doosra for now after realising he can work over batsmen with the conventional offspinner, allied to drift and, what Shane Warne likes to term, natural variation.
"Yeah, I don't need it at the moment. The way I'm bowling at the moment, attacking both sides of the bat because some of them are going straight on, means I don't really need it. I'd still like to have it in my repertoire but it needs a lot more work."
It is now well known that Ian Bell has played a key role in the transformation of Moeen from a bowler who managed to pick up useful, but often expensive, wickets to someone Alastair Cook is now becoming increasingly confident to throw the ball to with a match to win. "I don't want to get carried away," Moeen said. "But I do feel I've taken a big step towards being a decent Test spinner. I feel like I have more control, and that my captain and team-mates can trust me."
However, it has emerged that Kumar Dharmasena, the Sri Lankan umpire who stood in the first two Tests of the series, also offered some crucial, if unorthodox advice, while standing in an England net session before Lord's. Dharmasena, an offspinner during his playing days, advised Moeen to grab his left pocket with his non-bowling hand as he came through his action to help him get through the delivery at the optimum speed. Moeen noticed the impact immediately.
"As soon as I bowled one ball I knew it would work," he said. "That, for some reason, allows me to bowl quicker and straighter without being flat. I knew that was how I needed to bowl from then on. It's completely different from county cricket. I bowled there in the eye line, as people say, and I didn't have consistency. As soon as I bowled that way for England I got hammered, especially by India and Sri Lanka because they use their feet so well. Even slightly good balls disappear. They're so good at it. So I had to bowl quicker and straighter and to my field a bit more. So far it's been all right, since Lord's."
"All right" is Moeen's modesty coming through. It is one of many admirable character traits, which have at the same time quickly endeared him to the English cricket public - an audience that has had its patience and loyalty tested over the last 12 months - but also made him stand out as a cricketer with a rare understanding of the bigger picture and the wider world around him.
That freedom of expression and thought, however, has created two of the moments where Moeen has witnessed the attention comments and actions will gain from someone of his growing stature. On the second day of the Ageas Bowl Test he batted wearing wrist bands to bring attention to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The ECB offered its full support but he was told to remove them by the ICC (although, sensibly, not handed any fine or official reprimand).
"I didn't think it would be such a big deal. I just totally forgot I had them on when I went into bat," he said. "Obviously it all came out but it didn't bother me one bit, the media and what people say. Even if I get criticised it doesn't bother me because I just try to get on and do the best I can."
But it did remind him of the focus he will now be under. "I have to be a lot more careful. ICC didn't allow me to wear them and I accepted that. I have a lot of opinions on a lot of stuff but it's not the time and place now to go into it. I wasn't trying to be political it was just a humanitarian thing. I can speak about it but I don't think it's the right time now especially before a Test match. Maybe later on I will speak about it."
Previously, before he made his Test debut against Sri Lanka at Lord's, he gave another open and honest press conference where he spoke with warmth and humility about the importance of being a Muslim (including lighthearted references to the much-talked about beard), the pride it brings and his hopes of being an inspiration for future generations - something he is well on the way to achieving. Sadly, in one major UK newspaper there was a column by a well-known writer, who had not been present at the press conference, that questioned Moeen's motives.
"I didn't want people to think I was trying to be all about my religion and all that kind of stuff, it was just a question I was asked at the time," he said. "It is really the most important thing to me but that's my own thing. With regards to a couple of things that came out, I wasn't that upset about it I just didn't expect it. It doesn't bother me what people write - about my beard or whatever."
And he has a simple approach to keeping himself level, whether in cricket or in life. "I don't really read a lot and am not on Twitter or social stuff so I don't get too excited or too down. I try and be as level as I can and if things do get tough then I can sit back and tell myself it's just a game of cricket - there's more to life than cricket. And when things get too over the top, I do the same thing, bring myself down a little bit."
It does not appear that Moeen will be fazed by his new-found status, but there can be no doubt that his life has changed. "When I go to the shops I get free food and stuff now," he joked, before quickly, and eloquently, explaining how he wants to help benefit others. "A lot more people obviously recognise me and ask me for autographs. It's good because I get a lot of Asian kids especially coming and asking me 'what's it like playing for England?' and 'how do people treat you?' and that kind of stuff.
"That's the kind of barrier I want to try and break down - that people think it is tough and will treat you badly if you're a practising Muslim or whatever. That is the reason I like to play cricket for England - because I can break down barriers for other people and inspire kids, not just Asian kids but all kids, to play.
"Even if I didn't play for England again, speaking to a lot of these kids I can see they're really interested and really want to play for England, which is nice. Previously a lot of them wanted to play for India and Pakistan but now I get a lot more Asians coming up to me saying they're supporting England. That's what I want and that for me makes me happier than anything - a lot of people are supporting England and want us to do well."
Moeen has come a long way from the streets of Birmingham, the kid who bowled seam-up and the allrounder who had to move counties to find a permanent home. But you sense there is still much more to come in the Moeen Ali story.
Investec, the specialist bank and asset manager, is the title sponsor of Test match cricket in England. Visit investec.co.uk/cricket or follow us @InvestecCricket
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo