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Man on a mission

Moeen Ali is proud to be a visible role model for Muslim cricketers in England but his talent with bat and ball is now also catching the eye

George Dobell
George Dobell
Moeen Ali has added substance to his style  •  PA Photos

Moeen Ali has added substance to his style  •  PA Photos

It's not the elegant batting you notice first with Moeen Ali. It's not the ever-improving offspin, either. Or the reliable slip catching.
It's the beard.
Perhaps it should not be that way. Perhaps in multicultural Britain we should have progressed to the point where issues of race, gender, religion or sexuality have become irrelevant.
The fact is, though, Moeen stands out. Whatever the advancements made in relation to the development of Asian players in domestic cricket - and anecdotal evidence would suggest that, despite very considerable improvements, it is a work in progress - there is no other player anywhere near the England side who wears their religious views so obviously and so proudly. With his long beard - it has been compared to both Hashim Amla's and WG Grace's - Moeen has become almost as recognisable a feature at New Road as the chestnut trees and the tower of the cathedral. His image features heavily in ECB literature that seeks to underline the organisation's inclusivity.
There is some unease in bringing up the subject of religion in an interview with a young cricketer. It is hard to think of another member of the England Performance Squad - Moeen was named in the party that will travel to Australia in mid-November - where the issue would warrant a mention in any circumstances. But as it happens Moeen brings the issue up himself and, far from being reluctant to talk about it, insists it underpins every facet of his life and career. He is defined by his religious views and, he says, the beard is a visual demonstration of that. He is happy to be the poster boy for inclusiveness.
"I wear the beard as a label," he says. "I want people to know I am a Muslim and I want people to know I am representing the Muslim faith. I want to show that you can practise your faith and still play cricket to a high level.
"Yes, I see myself as a role model. And as a role model, I have to behave in a certain way. Do I see it as a mission? Yes, I do."
It is a lot to take on for a young man but Moeen would have it no other way. Married at 21 and now a father at 26 - his son, Abu Bakr, born a few weeks ago, has been named in honour of the first man to accept Islam - Moeen has a maturity that seems a world away from the tabloid-feeding exploits of so many young sportsmen.
"You think it seems mature because you look at society and young men are not behaving in a mature way," Moeen says. "But isn't this - raising a family, working hard, trying to be a role model - the way it should be?"
Moeen was always going to be a cricketer. Like his cousin Kabir Ali - who had a cricket ball placed in his cot the day he was born - Moeen grew up steeped in the game. Coached by his cricket-mad father and uncle - twins who married twin sisters - Moeen is part of a dynasty that includes two other brothers, Kadeer Ali and Omar Ali, who played age-group cricket for England, and a cousin, Aatif Ali, who has played for various county 2nd XIs.
"They said it couldn't be done," Munir Ali, Moeen's father, says. "They said that we, a poor Asian family from inner-city Birmingham, could never break through to the professional game. They said it was all for public schoolboys and the rich. But the boys have shown that if you have the right attitude and ability, there is a way.
"Now people say to me, 'If he didn't have a beard, or if his beard was shorter and neater, he would have played for England already.' But we don't think that's true at all. Not these days. He just needed to be more consistent and, now that he is, he is starting to interest the selectors. That's the way it should be."
Moeen is keen to inspire the next generation of Muslim cricketers breaking into the professional game. As far as he is concerned, a "no excuses" culture is key.
"I've not experienced racism from other players. You experience ignorance but that's not the same and I'm always happy to discuss things. If that helps people learn about Islam, to learn there's nothing to fear, then great, that's all part of my role"
"A kid came up to me the other day," Moeen says. "He was no more than ten years old. He asked: 'Can you tell me which club I should play at where I won't suffer racism?' I told him 'every club'. People use race and religion as an excuse. It sounds as if those guys [Muslims] who played a generation or two before me might have had a hard time but I can honestly say there are no barriers if you're good enough and you work hard. That kid's parents had instilled in him an attitude that will hold him back. I blame them.
"I've not experienced racism from other players. Not once. You experience ignorance but that's not the same at all, and I'm always happy to discuss things. If that helps people learn about Islam, to learn there's nothing to fear, then great, that's all part of my role.
"There are differences, of course. After a win, the boys might go to a nightclub to celebrate. They respect that I won't want to come. I can understand how younger players might want to fit in. But maybe I can be an example to them. I can show them you don't have to change who you are to fit in.
"And, yes, we have discussions about religion all the time. Not politics but religion. There's a lot of misunderstanding out there, particularly in the difference between religion and culture. For example, I hear people criticise Islam for arranged marriages, but that's nothing to do with Islam. It is the culture in some places, but it's actually against Islam.
"There have been a few times, at T20 games really, where people have shouted out things from the crowd that I would consider racist. But I can honestly say I've never had anything like that from another player."
He is effusive in praise of Worcestershire. He surprised many by signing a five-year contract extension with the club earlier this year and, in doing so, disappointed a host of clubs who were hoping to lure him elsewhere.
"Worcestershire were fantastic from the beginning," he says. "They were sponsored by a beer company at the time, but they quickly gave me an unbranded shirt so I didn't have to wear anything that advertised alcohol, and they give me space and time to pray. Even at away games. I recall Graeme Hick moving all his kit from the dressing room at Taunton so I had a place to pray. People talk a lot about what a great player Hick was, but he is even greater as a man.
"Yes, I could have earned more money at another club. And maybe they would have had better facilities. But they've been good to me here, I enjoy being one of the main men in the team and I like the people. Those things are more important. It's not all about money. Besides, I did get a very good deal."
Moeen did not always enjoy so benevolent an environment. In 2005 he made his first-class debut for Warwickshire and, aged 17 years and 338 days, became the second-youngest man (after Tom Cartwright) to score a half-century for the club, only to be dropped for the next game. A year later he made his Championship debut, coming in against Nottinghamshire with his side reeling on 133 for 6, and stroked a classy 68. Again he was dropped for the next game and declined the offer of a new contract at the end of the season.
"That was nothing to do with race or religion," he says. "And not the reason I left the club, really. It was more that I felt I needed a fresh start. I had grown up with some of those guys at Warwickshire and they knew me as an ordinary teenage kid who had done all the same things they had done. I felt that, to be the Muslim I wanted to be, I had to start somewhere new where no one would remember what I used to be like, and have no baggage."
He credits Steve Sylvester, a sports psychologist, for much of his progress in 2013. Sylvester, a former left-arm seamer who played a handful of games for Middlesex and Nottinghamshire at the start of the 1990s, helped Moeen put his faith and his cricket into context and banish any fear of failure.
"He helped me embrace what I am all about," Moeen says. "He helped me see the bigger picture and the role of cricket in my life. Cricket, basically, is just a game and, by understanding that I have a greater purpose, I can relax and not worry about what happens on the pitch."
There were some technical changes, too. Where once Moeen altered his stance every few games - he endured a wretched period while attempting a Chanderpaul-esque crab stance - he has now settled on a method he trusts: feet wide apart so he is able to transfer his weight on to front or back foot without much obvious, or disruptive, movement. The days when he regularly nicked off or, worse, was bowled by deliveries he left, appear to be gone.
He is just as elegant as before, but far more compact and far better at picking which deliveries to leave or play. He says he leaves almost everything outside off stump until he has 20 or 30. Last season he made more Championship runs than anyone else (1375) and won the PCA's MVP and Player of the Year awards.
He seems to be at his best under pressure. He made a double-century against a strong Glamorgan attack and scored centuries in both innings of the game against Division Two winners Lancashire. By contrast, against Leicestershire he found the lack of intensity eroded his concentration.
If Moeen is to break into the England team, he has been told it will probably not be as a specialist batsman: his offspin bowling will also be relevant. Had this winter's tour been to Asia rather than Australia, there is a fair chance Moeen would have been included in much the same manner that Samit Patel was in the party that went to India: as second spinner and No. 6 batsman.
While Moeen is nowhere near as potent a bowler as Graeme Swann, there are obvious similarities between the two. Both attempt to turn the ball as much as possible - in tests at Loughborough, only Swann and Monty Panesar of England-qualified fingerspinners spun the ball harder - and both have a fine arm-ball.
"If I'm honest, I think I need to bowl quicker if I'm going to play for England," Moeen says. "Swann is a fantastic bowler, the best conventional fingerspinner I've seen, and the basis of what he does is getting the ball up and down quickly. I'm going to have to do that if I'm going to play at that level."
Moeen does have one advantage over Swann, though. While playing alongside Saeed Ajmal, he was let into the secret of how Ajmal bowls the doosra.
"I stood at slip to Ajmal for a few weeks and I still can't pick him," Moeen says. "But he showed me how he does it. He told me that maybe six people in the world know and that he hadn't told anyone else in England.
"I can bowl it, yes. And there's no problem with throwing or anything like that. Umpire Peter Willey actually encouraged me to bowl it. But at the moment I have to practise it a bit more before using it in a game. I didn't use it once all season."
With bat and with ball, Moeen could go on to play an important role for England. But even if he never plays international cricket, his role in English cricket may well dwarf anything he accomplishes on the pitch.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo