It was the emphasis that was telling. Alastair Cook's stressing of the word "this" in the sentence "Moeen Ali is our first-choice spinner for this game" told us more than the words used.

It wasn't quite a "last chance" warning, but it wasn't far from it.

Moeen cannot have too many complaints. He has only passed 25 twice in seven Tests (though one of those was a pleasing century at Chester-le-Street less than two months ago) this year and he is averaging 92.00 with the ball in the same period. Even a larger sample size, going back to the start of 2015, is not flattering: he averages 29.23 with the bat and 47.86 with the ball. He has never been dropped in his Test career - though he has missed games for other reasons - but he goes into the Old Trafford game needing a performance to ensure he in the side for his "home" Test at Edgbaston.

It is possible that England will go into the second Investec Test with two spinners. But, bearing in mind that they have not won a game at home with two specialist spinners since 1985 (and the spinners bowled one over between them in the final innings), bearing in mind that Joe Root was bowling more than usual in training, bearing in mind how well Pakistan play spin - Adil Rashid averaged 69.50 with the ball in the series in the UAE - and that approach seems unlikely. Besides, Manchester has been overcast since England named their XII with a view to seeing how the pitch developed in the next 12 hours.

Rashid has impressed in training, though. He bowled Gary Ballance (deceived in the flight and losing his middle stump as a consequence) in the nets on Thursday and then took the edge of Chris Woakes' bat. As Woakes played Yasir Shah's legspin as well as anyone at Lord's, that is a decent effort. "He's coming along nicely," Cook said. "He is improving all the time and he bowled really nicely in the nets today."

In current form, Rashid is not miles behind Moeen as a batsman, either. He may be unorthodox and he may have been the No. 11 in England's recent white-ball teams, but he has 10 first-class centuries to his name and, crucially, he has a confidence in his game that Moeen does not.

Moeen looks a little lost at present. He has paid for his versatility and the failure of the English system to produce spin bowlers. He doesn't quite know what he is or how he should play. The natural confidence he once had in his batting has evaporated. The 'bits and pieces' allrounder tag sits uncomfortably on a man who once oozed class as a batsman.

He has become confused in his role - especially batting in the low middle-order and being asked to produce aggressive cameos with the tail for company - and lost some of the mentality and rigour that a top-order batsman should possess. His selflessness, a quality that is respected by his colleagues, has led to him selling his wicket too cheaply, too often. That's a bad habit for a batsman.

But he has had opportunities. There have been times when he has been asked to bat higher up the order - notably when he opened in the UAE - and times when he has had the opportunity to build innings with recognised batsmen. He has not taken many of those opportunities.

In early Tests, he benefited from the opposition underestimating him as a bowler. Remember Steve Smith and Michael Clarke in the first innings in Cardiff? At times, batsmen seemed to want to hit him out of the attack and sacrificed their wickets in the process.

But then they learned better. They learned not just that he is a dangerous bowler armed with drift and flight, but that he bowled enough loose deliveries that there was no need to go after him; if they waited, the release ball would come along soon enough.

His doosra, one of the attributes that made his package of skills attractive to the selectors, has become almost irrelevant. With the ICC cracking down on bowling actions, Moeen became reluctant to bowl it in matches (even though there has never been a whisper of a suggestion that his action is suspect and even though few could see any change of action between his offbreak and doosra) and, as a result, practised it less often in the nets.

He did not, by any means, bowl badly at Lord's. It was more that he bowled against very good players of spin on a pitch that offered him nothing. Many spinners would have paled by comparison next to Yasir Shah.

"In a richer playing age, Moeen would not have played almost 30 Tests as a first-choice spinner. But English cricket has made a fearful mess of its spin development and it will take time to get it back on track"

But Moeen has struggled to come to terms with the fact that, even bowling well, there are times when he faces batsmen who are too good for him. And, while he might vary his pace a little more in such circumstances, there are times when a player hits a ceiling; when their best isn't good enough.

Again, he is paying the price for others' faults here. In a richer playing age, Moeen would not have played almost 30 Tests as a first-choice spinner. But English cricket has made a fearful mess of its spin development and it will take time to get it back on track. Moeen really is among the best there is at present but in trying to be something he may not quite be to gain his chance in Test cricket he may have sacrificed his real talent.

The team management have a choice of trying to make him feel secure and valued - as they clearly have - or allowing him to regain some form and confidence in county cricket. They also know that, when Rashid does get his chance, he will soon be put under the same pressure. Bowlers of his pace are rare in international cricket and, while he probably turns the ball more than Yasir, he does not have the same accuracy.

Whatever happens over the next few days, though, it may well remind us of the adage that players' reputations often improve for not playing. The selectors have come in for some fearsome bashing in recent days - much of it unfair - but it might be worth reflecting on how they would be perceived right now if James Anderson had played at Lord's against medical advice and sustained an injury.

Writing in the Telegraph, Michael Vaughan claimed he decided to go into Tests with a "50 percent fit" Andrew Flintoff "on several occasions". That's the Andrew Flintoff who was obliged to retire from Test cricket aged 31 and whose last few years in the game were blighted by injuries. Maybe playing him when unfit wasn't so clever, after all? Thankfully, Anderson is treated as the precious, but increasingly fragile, asset that he is.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo