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Match Analysis

Dobell: When England desperately needed their spinner to stand up, Moeen Ali failed to deliver

First Test feels like an ending, for these are the days when spinners must earn their keep

Moeen Ali is under pressure  •  Getty Images

Moeen Ali is under pressure  •  Getty Images

It's the first Test of the series, but it felt like an ending. For these are the days when spinners must earn their keep. Days when their captains look to them to build pressure and take wickets. And the harsh truth is, when England desperately needed their main spinner to stand up, Moeen Ali failed to deliver.
This is the sort of pitch of which spinners should dream. Yes, it is a bit slow. But it is dry and it offers sharp turn. So while the lack of pace - and the soft ball - renders seamers largely innocuous, a Test spinner would hope to put enough balls in the right areas to build pressure. Experience suggests that, in time, the wickets will follow.
Moeen did bowl some good balls. The one that bowled Tim Paine, pitching outside off and turning sharply through the gate, was a thing of beauty. But it just served to show what might have been had he maintained a tighter line and length throughout the day.
There were also some awful deliveries; two head-height beamers, several other full tosses, and a handful of long-hops. And, most of all, there were simply too many loose balls. The delivery after beating Travis Head with a fine one that spat past the outside edge, Moeen dropped short and allowed the batsman to punch a single to deep cover. It ruined any chance Joe Root had of applying pressure.
It's hard to set a field for Moeen. Against Steven Smith, for example, he had three men out to protect the boundaries. But that allowed holes in the field. And to a batsman as adept as Smith, it left Moeen unable to even keep the batsmen on strike. The fact that Joe Denly and Root bowled 26 between them - both conceding more than four an over - was an unflattering indictment of his captain's confidence in him.
Where this leaves Moeen is the question. He remains the top wicket-taker in Test cricket over the last 12 months and he was the top wicket-taker (albeit equal with Jack Leach in Sri Lanka) in both England's series over the winter. If he were a batsman - coming off one poor Test - there seems little chance he would be dropped. And if a bit of faith and support works with batsmen, why not bowlers?
But he's not a batsman. Not anymore. While he has the talent to have scored five Test and three ODI centuries (only one man has scored a quicker one for England), it has been so long since that looked likely that it seems naive to factor it into selection. His average since December 10, 2017 is 15.40 and he has made four ducks in his last eight Test innings. On merit, Chris Woakes, who made a century six Tests ago, should be batting above him.
Moeen's batting is relevant to his decline as a bowler, though. He grew up as a batsman and built much of his identity and confidence upon that characteristic. After 38 Tests, he had scored five Test centuries and averaged 35.45 and he knew that, even if he struggled with the ball, he could contribute with the bat. That took pressure off him.
Somewhere along the way, however, that confidence has been eroded. It probably didn't help that he was moved up and down the order to fill holes in the side. Particularly in limited-overs cricket, where he had made his name as a top-order player. He has batted everywhere from No. 1 to No. 9 in England's Test side; always the one required to compromise and tailor his game for the benefit of less versatile - or more stubborn - players. Perhaps as a result of being over promoted - he had hardly opened in red-ball cricket before doing it in Test cricket - his technical issues started to eat away at his confidence. And it probably didn't help that, after making four centuries in 2016, he found himself back at No. 8 and batting with the tail. Bad habits, not least the compunction to thrash a few quick runs before he was left without partners, became ingrained. It remains a concern that so few Test batsmen have developed under the current coaching regime. Jonny Bairstow's decline also appears to be going unchecked.
The Ashes tour of 2017-18 may have been a watershed moment. Moeen averaged 19.88 with the bat and 115.00 with the ball. Nathan Lyon dismissed him seven times, but he didn't look especially comfortable against the short ball, either. The late, great Christopher Martin-Jenkins used to say that England players don't recover from disappointing Ashes tours and, while there are exceptions - not least James Anderson - he was probably on to something.
Opposition players have, to some extent, worked Moeen out, too. In his first Test against Australia, in July 2015, he claimed five wickets - including Smith, Michael Clarke and David Warner - as the batsmen tried to hit him out of the attack. In looking to destroy him, however, they presented him with opportunity. Eventually, however, they have realised there is no need to go after Moeen: unless he is at his absolute best, he can be milked without unnecessary risk. His economy rate - 3.62 runs per over - is the worst in the top 49 wicket-takers for England. Here just one of his 29 overs was a maiden. Not for a moment did it look like he was going to run through Australia. Most worryingly, not for a moment did it look as if he believed he would. His confidence, and as a consequence the snap and pace of his delivery, has evaporated.
It's probably relevant that, in Sri Lanka and West Indies, he played as one of a two or even three-man spin attack. That took pressure off him and allowed his captain to remove him from the attack if he was struggling. His record in circumstances where he has played as a single spinner on a turning surface - especially when bowling in the fourth innings - is not good. Think of the Barbados Test of 2015 as an example. It's not entirely surprising that England have sometimes contorted themselves in the attempt to get Moeen to believe he was playing as a second spinner.
England have, in Leach, an obvious alternative. While some will say, with more than a grain of truth, his record is embellished by playing on a helpful surface at Taunton (he averages 20 there in first-class cricket and 32 away), such experience may have proved useful here: he has become used to bowling with expectation. He knows the importance of patience and control in such circumstances. He would, almost certainly, have been a great asset. He will not let England down.
But expectations should be tempered. Due to the absurdity of the domestic schedule, Leach will go into that game, if selected, having bowled three overs in first-class cricket in a month. He has, albeit in a small sample size, a modest Test record (55.00 runs per wicket) against left-handers (there are four in Australia's top seven) and the England management were a little surprised by how little purchase he got on the ball in Sri Lanka. Put simply, he doesn't have the pace, the dip or the drift of Moeen. But he doesn't have the long-hops or full-tosses, either.
What England do with Moeen in the short-term is up for debate. To some extent, he looks like a man who could do with a holiday. Perhaps, in due course, he could play some T20, return to the run-in of the Championship programme and rekindle his love for the game. It looks, from a distance, as if it has waned.
If Moeen never plays another Test - and there's every chance he could be back for the Sri Lanka tour, at least; England aren't blessed with dozens of spin-bowling options - he may be remembered as something of an enigma: the bowler with a better strike rate than Jim Laker and Derek Underwood and the worse average than anyone else in the top 20 England wicket-takers. The batsman who could time it like David Gower but sometimes looked like Phil Tufnell. The beard that wasn't always feared, but was very often liked and respected.
More than that, he has provided a reminder that cricket is not just a game played on the public school playing field or in the shadow of the church on the village green. It's a game to be played in the park, the alley and in the shadow of the mosque. He has embraced his position as the role model his sport, his country even, needed: British, Muslim and proud of both. And he has helped change the snarling face of an England team that wasn't always especially likeable in 2014 into the smiling face of the World Cup winners of 2019. He has achieved a huge amount of which to be proud. And, you suspect, he will have a role to play on a greater stage once his playing career has ended.
But none of that will be of much relevance when the selectors meet to pick the squad for the Lord's Test. To know, for sure, whether he is in a fit state to play, you would need to look in his eyes and ask the question. He is too great a talent to discard prematurely. Increasingly here, though, Moeen has resembled the much-loved family pet which is off its food and unable to leave its bed. Nobody wants to take that trip to the vet, but sometimes it's kinder to put an end - or at least give a break - to the suffering.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo