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Spurned Moeen Ali begins the long kiss goodnight after 'choosing' to leave India tour

Belated request to stay leaves allrounder in no-win situation, and may hasten end of Test career

George Dobell
George Dobell
It felt like a farewell. As Moeen Ali thrashed five sixes and three fours in 12 balls of carnage, it felt as if he had decided to go out playing the way he had always wanted to play. To go out swinging, if you like.
First, the reality check. Moeen will probably play for England again within a month. Yes, he's returning to England now, but he will re-join the tour party in time for the T20I leg of the tour which starts on March 12.
He could return to Test cricket, too. He's only 33 and, despite that moderate form with the bat and some inconsistency with the ball, he showed glimpses of the ability that has earned him nearly 200 Test wickets and nearly 3,000 Test runs.
But just because he can, doesn't mean he will. And the fact is, with England likely to play one spinner in home Tests and during the away Ashes, he is giving other candidates - and younger candidates, at that - a chance to establish themselves in his absence. This feels like the end of the road.
It's probably worth reflecting on how we arrived at this point. How a man whose life has been, for the most part, driven by an ambition to play for England, has "chosen" (more on this word later) to go home rather than play Test cricket. It would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago. It is no exaggeration to say his father sometimes went without food to ensure Moeen - and his siblings - had the best chance to fulfil their potential in life. In Moeen's case that meant playing cricket.
And that's what he did. He used to rush to the park to play cricket the second he was released from school. When the park was locked each night, he and his friends would climb back in and play in the dark. When his mum dragged him home, he'd play in the hall of their house. He was a professional cricketer before he could grow a beard. How could a man so obsessed with the game end up in a situation where he has declined several touring opportunities with England?
Maybe we are over-complicating things here.
We have to remember this key point: England are trying to fulfil an absurdly heavy schedule during a pandemic. To that end, they have asked their players to spend a long time on the road without the option - usually a part of touring life, these days - of seeing their friends or families. For those all-format players on the tours of Sri Lanka and India, that means the prospect of three months away.
The added complication comes when we factor in the IPL. If we do, it leaves those all-format players facing the prospect of up to five months away. And, while that may have been deemed acceptable in an age when cricketers travelled by boat and were not expected to play an active role as parents, it isn't any more.
The ECB, consequently, committed to giving those all-format players a break at some stage of the tour. Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, you may recall, were rested from the Sri Lanka leg. Mark Wood and Jonny Bairstow missed the first two Test of this series - both are back in India now - while Jos Buttler played the first Test and was rested for the next three. Moeen was told he would be going home after the first two Tests in India. He spoke about it before the series started.
Now, let's go back to that 'chosen' word. It was the word used by Joe Root when he confirmed Moeen was heading home after the second Test. "Moeen has chosen to go home," he said.
It wasn't the word used to explain Buttler's or Archer's absence. It wasn't the word used to explain the absence of Bairstow or Wood or Stokes, either. Or the word used when Root himself missed the first Test of the 2020 summer to be at the birth of his child. Only Moeen's.
So, why use it with him?
Well, it is possible that Root simply expressed himself clumsily. In the aftermath of a chastening defeat, having dealt eloquently with questions about the pitch and England's problems against spin, he might simply have erred in suggesting that Moeen had simply decided to go home. Who hasn't done that at some stage? Root has had a magnificent tour; he can be forgiven a misstep.
But we should be very clear that it is a misleading word. The fact is - and they do not dispute it - the England management had agreed Moeen's rotation period ahead of the series. It was their decision.
But then confidence in Dom Bess wilted. And Moeen enjoyed a return to Test cricket which, while not perfect, provided a reminder of the high ceiling his game has. He would, but for dropped chances, have taken a 10-for, remember. And he has now taken 56 wickets at 25.69 apiece in his last 11 Tests. So, sometime on Monday afternoon, Ed Smith, the national selector asked Moeen stay on the tour.
It was an unfair request, really. And a request not made to any of the other rotated players. It forced Moeen into an impossible situation whereby he was made to feel he was either letting down his family or his team. But by then he had made a commitment to that family - a family who have watched on helplessly as he was diagnosed with Covid-19, remember - and they were expecting him home. Was he meant to call and say 'Sorry, kids: hopefully see you in three months'? In such a light, it wasn't really a choice at all. He is, by the way, expected to spend little more than a week at home. His flight back to India departs on February 26.
You wonder what Bess makes of all this. As if he hasn't had enough to deal with, he will now go into the second half of the series knowing that he was not just dropped, but that the national selector asked another spinner to stay on tour because confidence in him was so low. It's not terrific man-management, is it?
There will be those, no doubt, who suggest Test cricket should be England's (and Moeen's) priority. And there will be those appalled that the IPL is factored into this equation. The fact is, though, these players cannot be expected to ignore the riches on offer in India and besides, with a T20 World Cup to be played in the country later in the year, there are strong cricketing reasons for being involved in the tournament.
Smith asking Moeen for a favour now is like receiving a late-night text from the ex that broke your heart; if they liked it they should have put a ring on it.
Moeen doesn't have a full central contract, remember. An IPL gig (he was released by RCB last year but is in the auction at the end of this week) could more than double his annual income. For a man in the home stretch of his career, it is a factor that has to be considered.
It's probably unfortunate that it was Smith who asked Moeen to stay. That relationship hasn't been especially warm since May 2018 when Smith dropped Moeen from the first Test squad he announced - he didn't just drop him, he questioned his value overseas and his ability as a first-choice spinner in an unnecessarily punchy series of interviews - and then dropped him again after the first Test of the 2019 Ashes. Moeen had been the top wicket-taker in the world over the previous 12 months, yet was not offered a full central contract a couple of months later. That is the key moment when the relationship started to sour. At the time he most needed support, Moeen was cast adrift.
And so we end up here. With a man who has done him no favours asking for a favour. It's hard to avoid the suspicion that there's some more less-than-glorious man-management coming home to roost. Smith asking Moeen for a favour now is like receiving a late-night text from the ex that broke your heart; if they liked it they should have put a ring on it.
The problem with the 'chosen' word is that it has acted like a dog whistle for the ignorant or those with agendas. It has suggested - perhaps quite innocently - that Moeen has somehow turned his back on the team. It has left Moeen facing accusations - some from people who really should know better - of apathy or weakness or selfishness which few of his team-mates in similar positions have had to endure. It threw him to the wolves, really. It needs to be corrected.
There is, perhaps, a deeper irony here. Moeen has been used as the poster boy for inclusivity by the ECB since he made his international debut. But, as we reflect on the wreckage of this situation, we might well question how equitable and inclusive his treatment has been. It's worth repeating: nobody else was described as choosing to miss part of the tour.
And so it feels like an ending.
Did Moeen fulfil his talent? A batting average of 28.88 seems criminally low for one so blessed. But 189 Test wickets? At a better strike-rate than Graeme Swann or Jim Laker? That's an over-achievement, really.
There was something about the fragility of his cricket - the sense that you were never more than a waft from disaster - that somehow made every moment more vital and precious. All in all, his career has been like so many of his innings. It left you wanting more. But it was kind of beautiful while it lasted.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo