Moeen fights a lone battle
Moeen Ali could wake the dead with the timeless beauty of his batting. If many 21st-century players clout the ball as if they hate the entire concept of spheres and have a lifelong grudge against leather, Moeen finesses it like he pities it, and wants to comfort it on its journey over the boundary rope. Even his ugly, mistimed slogs are more stylish than most players' perfect cover drives. In fact, there are undenied rumours that Michelangelo is considered coming out of his near half-millennium-long retirement to update the Sistine Chapel ceiling with Moeen lofting Richie Berrington for six over long off at Hagley Oval today.
How good Moeen Ali proves to be remains to be seen. He is, currently, sporadically effective. He makes mistakes, frequently. Against Australia and New Zealand, he was out. Against Scotland, a drive fell just short of cover, an edge evaded the slips, and Moeen scored 128 off 107 balls. I fly home on Wednesday, before returning for the knockouts. A Moeen Ali century is worth travelling half way around world and back again, just to tell your children about it.
Moeen scored 78 of his runs in boundaries, with five sixes and 12 fours. After 42 overs, Ian Bell, Gary Ballance, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan and James Taylor had collectively struck three fours and absolutely zero sixes, whilst scoring 88 for 3 off 146 balls. The pitch was a little awkwardly paced, Morgan explained afterwards, and Moeen is an unusually brilliant stroke player, but that is still a worrying statistic for England.
Nudging will not win this tournament. It does not win many tournaments. In the 2011 World Cup, England's campaign of thrilling inconsistency and nail-biting finishes, ended in the dampest possible squib when they managed only 12 boundaries in 50 overs against Sri Lanka, three of them in the final 13 balls, and were duly demolished by 10 wickets.
In ODIs since the last World Cup, batsmen from the Test nations have scored, on average, 87 runs in boundaries in the first 42 overs of an innings. With Moeen's 78 boundary runs and the others' 12, England were slightly above average. Without Moeen, the others were massively below average - 50 boundary runs would be expected from those 146 balls.
All statistics can be crumbled under scrutiny, and Bell was largely playing a valuable, if scratchy supporting role, the principal purpose of which was to ensure that England's deluge of cricketing calamity was curtailed. He battled admirably against his absent timing, but played with the fluent certainty of a concrete hedgehog on an ice rink.
England's power shortfall is striking. Or not striking, more appropriately. Jos Buttler came in later than would have been ideal (England could be more flexible with their batting order), hit a staggeringly-timed leg-side boundary first ball, and pushed his side above 300. He was aided by Morgan finding some belated fluency. England under-use their power resources. Or leave them on the bench. Or at home. (And this is without even factoring in players who have written awkward autobiographies).
Moeen's sumptuous talents papered over the chasms that were exposed by the two host nations. If he finds consistency, he might even start filling those chasms with some concrete. But he needs help.
Morgan claimed that victory has given England some confidence for the second half of their group-stage campaign. Confidence, like momentum (that much-sought-after but frequently irrelevant commodity), can come and go with a few overs, a couple of middled drives, a perfect outswinger, a lucky escape or a dodgy umpiring decision. Perhaps this victory (and claiming their first major ODI title as Official UK Cricket Champions) will prove to be a watershed, but the suspicion remains that England's strategy and selection is outdated, vulnerable and almost completely dependent on Anderson and Broad, with over 1000 international wickets between them, finding their best form.
Thus far, they have not come close. Broad, who has at times in his fluctuating career been as lethal a full-length bowler as Southee was in Wellington, appears to have become a short-ball specialist. He did not bowl badly in Christchurch, nor was he particularly menacing, and he now has 0 for 90 since his two wickets with consecutive pitched-up balls in the eighth over of England's opening game.
Broad's innings of nought not out from three deliveries, in which he failed to make contact with the ball, was by far his best performance with the bat in the tournament so far. He has been a spectacular, match-winning, series-shaping cricketer. Does that player still exist? Can he be located within the next three weeks?
There are a few statistics that help explain why England have been so heroically unsuccessful at World Cups:
- Moeen hit five sixes in Christchurch, the 39th time in World Cup cricket that a player hit at least five sixes. David Gower was the first to do so, in 1983, a week before Kapil Dev clouted six into the Tunbridge Wells rhododendrons. Since then, 32 different players have hit five or more sixes in a total of 37 World Cup innings. Until Moeen, none of them had been English.
- Moeen's hundred was only the fifth English World Cup hundred since Graham Gooch's semi-final masterpiece in 1987, in 46 matches. Since 1992, the other top-8 ODI nations have, between them, scored 92 hundreds, at a rate of one century per 3.7 matches, compared with England's one every nine games. Interestingly, Moeen was the first England player born in England to score a World Cup ton since Gooch. Hick, Pietersern (twice) and Strauss were the only England players to reach three figures from 1992 to 2011.
- Moeen's was the first century by an England player in a Southern Hemisphere World Cup, in their 18th World Cup match below the equator.
Another excellent crowd of more than 12,000 came to the Hagley Oval for Christchurch's final game of the tournament, including a man who concluded his afternoon's cricket-watching with one of the more athletic pieces of field-intruding nudity ever seen on a cricket ground.
Leaping onto the field at long leg, the streaker, who had no political or commercial message to convey other than an unmistakable belief in clotheslessness, spranted towards the pitch amidst no discernible concern from the players. He evaded the pursuing stewards with a series of swerves and sidesteps reminiscent of the great Welsh fly-half Barry John, star of the British Lions' series win here in New Zealand in 1971, but fatter, and with his jumble chunks out.
He bounded over the third-man boundary fence like a young, naked Ed Moses, ran, without breaking nudey stride, up a grass bank, beetled past the media dining facilities with an unclad defiance, and, reportedly, vaulted over the security fence and escaped into Christchurch with bareness aforethought.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer