Moeen Ali steps up to prove all-round value as England make emphatic start to T20 World Cup
CSK form feeds into star turn with ball as miserly four-over spell sets up crushing victory
No Stokes, no Archer, no Curran, no problem for England. "The absence of the allrounders who aren't here does hurt us," Eoin Morgan admitted at the toss ahead of their opening Men's T20 World Cup match against West Indies, "but hopefully we can make it work."
With three of their key all-round players missing, England had a tough choice to make heading into the game: should they play an extra bowler and compromise their batting depth, or pick an extra batter and risk running out of bowling options? They opted for the latter, meaning they would have to bowl eight overs of spin; crucially, they won the toss, avoiding the possibility of dew affecting them.
Morgan had talked up Liam Livingstone and Moeen Ali's credentials as "genuine allrounders" in his pre-match press conference but had rarely used them as such. Livingstone had bowled 10 overs in his T20I career and Moeen only 13.5 in his previous 10 appearances. In England's two warm-up games, they bowled seven overs between them which cost 67 runs.
Still, it was no surprise to see Moeen thrown the new ball, with West Indies opening the batting with Evin Lewis, a destructive left-hander with a vulnerability against offspin, and Lendl Simmons, a right-hander but a cautious starter. The first over was a score draw. Moeen dug the ball into the pitch on a good length and was looking to hit the top of the stumps but when his last ball was overpitched, Lewis shimmied down and slammed it back over his head for six.
But Morgan gambled after Chris Woakes had removed Lewis - a slower ball which he mistimed to Moeen, backpedalling at mid-off from the edge of the circle to take a superb catch over his head - by giving Moeen a second over, even with Simmons on strike.
He struck with its second ball. Simmons was hitting towards the big side - one boundary was 10 metres longer than the other - and picked out Livingstone at deep midwicket. "Brainless batting," Nasser Hussain said on commentary, bringing to mind Daren Sammy's famous riposte to a Mark Nicholas column after their 2016 title. But Moeen was rewarded for bowling straight, playing on Simmons' ego by daring him to try and clear the boundary-rider.
With Shimron Hetmyer, another left-hander, in his sights, Moeen was able to rattle through four more dots to complete his first-ever maiden in T20 internationals, and after Hetmyer hit the first two balls of his third over for four - a loft over midwicket and a chip inside-out over extra cover - he struck again: a fast, flat offbreak rushed him on the pull, which he plinked straight to Morgan at mid-on.
By the time Moeen had completed his fourth over - four dots and two singles, to end with his cheapest-ever T20I figures when bowling a full allocation - West Indies were 33 for 4, giving England a 76% chance of winning according to ESPNcricinfo's forecaster. Crucially, the fifth bowler's allocation - a pressing concern only half an hour before - had been fulfilled at the earliest possible opportunity.
It was telling that Adil Rashid, who returned remarkable figures of 4 for 2 in 2.2 overs, was overlooked for the match award - with ESPNcricinfo's impact tool also rating Moeen as the MVP on account of the fact he struck twice in the Powerplay, when wickets are most valuable. "When you bowl the first over you're obviously trying to keep it tight," Rashid said. "That's the aim and if wickets come, wickets come. They may just have a look but you've still got to bowl well and I thought Mo bowled exceptionally well there, especially bowling four overs in a row. He kept it tight and picked up wickets as well, so that really set the tone."
England have severely underused Moeen in T20 cricket over the last 12 months. He went ten consecutive games without being picked across their tours of South Africa and India last winter and home fixtures against Sri Lanka in the summer, and when he has played, he has had a bit-part role with both bat and ball, often bowling a solitary over and hidden as low as No. 7 with the bat.
But he has been embraced by Chennai Super Kings, who made him a senior player in their title-winning season after shelling out INR 7 crore (USD 930,000 approx) for him at the IPL auction, and his success appeared to remind England of his talents. "That role in the team is really good for me: I feel like I'm really involved with the bat and ball and in the field," he said afterwards.
"It obviously helped with so many left-handers in their team but I've been bowling all right: I've been bowling well in the nets so I've got quite confident, and I think because I've been playing cricket, I wasn't as nervous as probably some of the other guys. I was actually glad to get the first ball."
Morgan said: "He summed up conditions beautifully, hit his lengths really well and took chances when his match-ups were right. The reason he hasn't featured as much as we would have liked is down to conditions… [but] to come in and take his opportunity like he has - he's full of confidence after his success at the IPL and he's going to be a huge contributor throughout this campaign hopefully for us."
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98