England v Sri Lanka, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 5th day June 24, 2014

Moeen shines amid rubble

It should not obscure the failures that led to England's defeat but Moeen Ali showed his talent and his temperament with a wonderful maiden Test century
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Play 01:48
'We lost because of one bad day' - Cook

When Andy Flower warned after the Ashes that there may be more pain for England before things improved, it was days like this he had in mind.

Defeated for the first time at home in a multi-Test series by Sri Lanka, England have fallen two places to fifth in the Test rankings and, for the first time since 1996-97, when they were unable to defeat India, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and New Zealand, have gone eight Tests in succession without a victory. James Anderson's tears after his dismissal summed up the general mood of the England camp. All the fight and hope had come to nothing.

There are unlikely to be repercussions in the short-term. England already have a new managing director, a new coach and a new chairman of selectors. They are not looking for a new captain as well.

There was always an understanding that this team was at the start of a long rebuilding phase. They may even consider themselves somewhat unfortunate to come up against a highly motivated Sri Lanka side containing two great players and several very good ones in their first Test series. This new dawn in English cricket was never likely to be full of rainbows and balloons.

Even if England had escaped with a draw, it should not have obscured the problems. It should not have obscured their poor catching, which has been an issue since the home series against South Africa in 2012, or the complacency with the bat that saw them squander a match-defining position in their first innings. It should not have obscured the weariness which seems to consume James Anderson and Stuart Broad worryingly often these days and it should not have obscured the poor form of a couple of England's senior players.

Most of all, it should not have obscured the manner in which England looked adrift in the field on the fourth day, or their problems with the short ball on the fifth.

While it was understandable to see England struggle against the pace and hostility of Mitchell Johnson in the Ashes, it was a surprise to see them struggle against the short ball from Dhammika Prasad. Admirably though Prasad bowled, there are many quicker and more hostile bowlers in world cricket. If batsmen cannot handle this in England, they are in serious trouble the next time they play Australia or South Africa. The fact that their ability against spin is also a weakness does not bode well.

Perhaps that Ashes experience is relevant. Perhaps several of those exposed to Johnson's bombardment have lost a bit of confidence against the short ball. While it is Jonathan Trott who is generally considered to have developed an issue with the delivery, the manner in which Matt Prior and Joe Root, in particular, struggled here, did raise the question as to whether they were suffering from some sort of shellshock after their experience in Australia. Prior was caught at short leg fending off one bouncer; Root was hit on the head and body by other short balls.

But, although it will not seem it right now, there were glimmers of gold amid the rubble of this defeat. The fact that Moeen Ali, Sam Robson and Gary Ballance were able to register centuries in their second Tests suggests all three could go on to play valuable roles at this level. Equally, the performance of Liam Plunkett and Chris Jordan, at least in parts, suggested England are beginning to assemble a group of seamers that could serve them well for a few years.

The fact that they demonstrated admirable fight on the final day, too, suggests there remains some spirit and resilience in the dressing room. Had they survived two more balls, it would have been record-breaking resistance: no team has gone into an uninterrupted final day (in terms of overs) with five wickets down and secured a draw.

On the final day, it was Moeen who stuck out. While more experienced colleagues faltered and failed, Moeen was calm and composed. While more experienced colleagues poked and prodded, Moeen ducked and left the ball with the experience of a 100-Test veteran. That he remained elegant and languid even in the tension of the last hour only increased the admiration for his innings. He even had the backbone to tell Stuart Broad not to squander a review when he was adjudged lbw. He deserved a better ending.

On a ground that has not, historically, been the most open-minded, a proud British Muslim earned a standing ovation of real warmth and appreciation

His bowling probably deserves more credit, too. In this match Moeen, despite bowling in the first and third innings against a side expert in playing spin, claimed two top-order wickets from his 24 overs. When you compare that to the figures of Rangana Herath, a spinner now accepted as a world-class performer who was bowling on a fifth-day pitch, they do not seem so bad: Herath bowled 67 overs and claimed only one more wicket than Moeen. All three of them were tailenders.

Moeen has long been destined for great things. He made a half-century on his first-class debut as a 17-year-old and then went on to captain England U-19s with some success.

But he lost his way for a while. Four or five years ago, he looked horribly uneasy against the short ball. Then, two or three years ago, experimenting with a stance like Chanderpaul and losing all sense of where his off stump was, he was caught in the slips so often that he went through a patch of leaving straight balls that bowled him. He admitted he thought this day might never come.

So to see him ducking or defending the bouncers with ease, to see him leaving with expert judgement, to see him reining in those natural instincts to lace the ball through the covers, was testament not just to his hard work but Worcestershire's faith. Other teams would have dropped him, but Worcestershire took the long-term view and understood that, if they had faith, it would be repaid many times over. England might benefit from the same attitude now.

There is a wider context, too. As a proud and visible British Muslim, Moeen has a role to play - a role he relishes - in building bridges between communities that have sometimes lacked trust in one another. He has a role to play in encouraging involvement from young players in communities that have not always felt included among the 'stakeholders' of English cricket and he has a role to play in helping the England side reflect the society it is meant to represent, not just part of it.

And that is a society that is not just white and middle-class and privately educated; it is not just a society where cricket is played on the village green by the church. It is also a society that lives in the inner-cities, that attends the state schools; it is a society where cricket is also a game played in the streets and parks near the mosque.

On a ground that has not, historically, been the most open-minded, a proud British Muslim earned a standing ovation of real warmth and appreciation. It was not always like this. On that front, at least, this was a special day for English cricket.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • android_user on June 26, 2014, 20:11 GMT

    Ali batted really well in the last day yet its too early to predict how he goes, Ajantha Mendis also started his career with a bang and now he's not in the team, Indian fast bowlers will be easy to handle yet the real challenge comes from Ashwin and Jadeja

  • jimbond on June 26, 2014, 8:40 GMT

    Unless something has dramatically changed in Plunkett in the past one year, he is not the pace-man that England has been looking for. In fact the fact that England has fallen back on Plunkett - itself shows how much the shelves are depleted. If Moen does improve as a batsman and justifies his place in the side, its a good sign, because he does not exactly fit in as a bowler. India may be slightly easier meat than Sri Lanka - especially in terms of bowling (batting wise, India may be slightly better than Sri Lanka).

  • dummy4fb on June 25, 2014, 21:39 GMT

    Moeen Ali is one of the future's legends in cricket......

  • Dafffid on June 25, 2014, 19:16 GMT

    Wonderful to see Ali do well, deserves a long run in the side. But I fear the success of England's younger batsmen will only incline them to reinforce their basic selection errors. Including extra batsmen to compensate for Cook's failures leaves their bowling short, and their failure to dispatch Sri Lanka quickly in their 2nd innings cost them, as it has many times before. If the talk to bring back Stokes in place of Jordan is correct, the situation will only get worse. Stokes is a fantastic talent and a genuine top 6 batsman, but Jordan's the better bowler. Anderson and Broad look exhausted half the time, and do England really need Prior batting at 8? The solution is to leave out a batsman - and on the face of it, that's got to be Cook.

  • dummy4fb on June 25, 2014, 18:46 GMT

    What a superb article this is...great. Eng might have lost the match but the resistance of moeen and jimmy towards the last hour is highly admirable. Both these guys won people's heart . Great match overall...Eng middle order vows are sorted out now with the arrival of moeen in the team.! cheers.

  • dharshanf on June 25, 2014, 16:14 GMT

    Mr. ALi I am Sri Lankan. You certainly dont deserve to be on the loosing side. While watching the last over here in Colombo Sri Lanka, I was awe struck at the penultimate ball. Winning was great! But you sir to me was the star of show. You played the best innings I have ever seen. You will be a great cricketer. Just stay focused. World cricket needs you!

  • penagamuri on June 25, 2014, 15:48 GMT

    English Cricket, Congratulations you have just unearthed a classy player in Moen Ali. He reminds me of Saeed Anwar of Pakistan, Very elegant, Languid and pleasing on the eye. I would be rooting for his success even when India is playing England.

  • opening__quick on June 25, 2014, 15:22 GMT

    Moeen is class! Has been brilliant at Worcs for several years now.... Elegant and composed century in his second test and people still criticise. As an Englishman it hurts to admit that English fans are awful. Only sing when they're winning. And when they have a reasons to cheer (as with Moeen) they still find petty reasons to shoot the guy down....

  • dummy4fb on June 25, 2014, 12:34 GMT

    Dont you fret English fans-Dhoni and company has landed. Cook will be in form Plunkett will clean clocks of most indians other Kohli and Pujara.

  • John-Price on June 25, 2014, 12:01 GMT

    All praise for Moeen fully deserved. One small quibble with the article - he was never in danger of being dropped by Worcs - even when playing badly, he was better than most.

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