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Match Analysis

Moeen Ali plays his greatest hits, thrilling and frustrating simultaneously

England should let Moeen know they value him after flashes of his best in Chennai

George Dobell
George Dobell
Like a band reforming for a comeback tour, Moeen Ali has reminded us of most of his greatest hits during this game.
There's been the dip and drift of his bowling at its best. There's been the wicket of one of the best batsmen in the world. There's even been a brief reprise of that timing with the bat which lit up this ground so often the last time England were here, when he scored 190 runs in the match.
But there were also the full tosses. And the long-hops. And the cheap dismissal that had you shaking your head and wondering about the gap between his potential and performance with the bat at this level.
To some extent, this is Moeen. He's going to delight, infuriate, surprise and confound you almost every time you watch him. He's probably never going to be the most consistent cricketer. On the good days that feels like part of his charm. On the not so good, it is maddening.
But he's 33 now and there's not much evidence he's going to reinvent himself. Maybe, just as we seem happy to accept that the aggression of Rishabh Pant and Ben Stokes will sometimes lead to their downfall, we have to accept that Moeen's apparent insouciance - the quality that enables him to look, at his best, wonderfully relaxed in the fury of the moment - is part of the package? As Frank Sinatra put it: Why try to change me now?
Moeen has taken eight wickets in this Test. But for a couple of missed chances, he would have had a five-for in both innings. He has now taken 189 Test wickets. While his average (36.10) is high - the highest among England bowlers with a minimum of 150 Test wickets, in fact - his strike rate (59.80) is better than any of the spinners above him in his country's all-time wicket-taking list. That list consists of Derek Underwood, Graeme Swann and Jim Laker, all generally accepted as greats of the English game.
Yes, the game has changed, and comparisons with strike rates - or indeed, averages - across eras can be misleading. But Moeen's record as a bowler does deserve a bit more respect than he is sometimes given. While he would love to have the consistency and control of that trio, each one of them would be proud of his drift and dip. His best deliveries really are very good. The problem is the bad ones occur a bit too often.
"They're amazing deliveries," Jeetan Patel, England's spin-bowling consultant, said of Moeen's classical offbreaks. "They shape away from the right-hander's bat, they dip, they hit the wicket hard and spin big. He's taken eight wickets and he should probably have had nine or 10. I don't know what more people would want.
"It's his first game back. He missed two weeks of intense training. Does that prepare you to play Test cricket in India? Maybe yes, maybe no. His rewards show that he's close enough, that he's good enough and he will certainly be better for this hit out."
And the full tosses? "When you're striving to hit the footmarks with lots of spin on the ball, there's going to be variation of length," Patel said. "It's understandable. They [England's spinners] have bowled a lot of overs, too. It takes its toll."
The encouraging thing about this display from Moeen is that he looked better the longer it went on. And that's hardly surprising as he came into the game without a first-class game since September 2019 and without any warm-up cricket on the tour. He's recently suffered a bout of Covid-19, too, and ripped a finger which had become soft from its lack of bowling on the seam of the SG ball when he returned to training. Expecting him to hit a perfect line and length was simply unreasonable. In normal circumstances, you might expect him to go from strength to strength in the rest of the series. Really, it's every bit of two years since he gained this level of drift and dip.
The less encouraging thing about this display is that it might represent an ending rather than a beginning. As things stand - and there is a possibility of a change of plan - Moeen is still expected to return to England in the next few days. While he is expected to return to India for the limited-overs section of the tour, this period could be his only chance to spend some time at home in several months.
If Moeen does go home, it will leave England's rotation plans looking a little clumsy. They will, you would think, be obliged to recall Dom Bess for the third Test having just knocked his confidence by dropping him for this game. And for all Bess' qualities - really, it's not unreasonable to expect him to score more runs than Moeen these days - he is liable to offer several of Moeen's less welcome characteristics without the accompanying brilliance.
Might there be a middle path? Part of Moeen's understandable desire for a break is the possibility of going to the IPL (which follows fast on the heels of this tour and prohibits time at home) once the limited-overs section of the England tour is concluded. But, having been released by RCB, there is no guarantee he will be picked up in Thursday's auction. Notwithstanding the difficulties in gaining flights and serving quarantine periods, it might make sense to wait until his fate in that auction is known to decide when he requires a break.
Moeen can't be blamed for preferring to take his break during the Test section of the tour. There is a T20 World Cup to be played in India later this year, after all, and he wants to be part of it. And, much as it may grate with some, it's also probably fair to conclude that the majority of Moeen's future career may be spent in the T20 game. If England wanted him to prioritise differently, they should probably have given him a full central contract.
Indeed, it is entirely possible this will be Moeen's final Test. You would think England would play just one spinner throughout the rest of 2021 - they will play seven home Tests and an Ashes series in Australia - and there is every indication the selectors see Moeen as their third-choice option.
You can understand why England dropped Moeen after the first Test of the 2019 Ashes. He looked a chastened, disappointed figure at the time. A man who had lost his confidence and fallen out of love with the game a bit. He looked as if he needed a break.
What is harder to understand is England's subsequent treatment of him. For at the time that decision was made, Moeen was the top Test wicket-taker in the world in the previous 12 months. As such, you would think he would be nurtured and encouraged and made to feel valued. Instead, he lost the red-ball element of his central contract around two months after he was dropped and, with a touch of disillusionment settling in, started to grow away from the longest format and one or two of those involved in selection. Like nearly every cricketer - every person, probably - he will perform better when he feels valued.
"I suppose the one thing that Mo wanted - well, needed - out of red-ball cricket was a bit of love from the game," Patel said. "I think he's got that [now]. Hopefully he will score some runs and really fall in love with red-ball cricket again."
There will be those who dismiss this performance as it came on a track offering assistance to spinners. And it's true, there has been an unusual amount of turn available. But it was also a surface on which India's No. 8 has scored almost as many runs as England managed in the first innings and a surface upon which the hosts are much more accustomed. While it's absolutely fair to acknowledge England's spinners bowled too many release deliveries, it must also be acknowledged that England's batsmen were bowled out for 134 in their first innings. It would be perverse to pin this result on the performance of two spinners who have claimed 14 wickets between them.
Besides, when Moeen is at his best, many of his best attributes are shown before the ball hits the pitch. His drift can lure batsmen out of his position; his dip can result in misjudgements of length. If 10 wicket-taking chances - and the fact that he has bowled 61 overs in the match, having not played a game for months - is not deemed good enough, don't we have to reflect on our expectations?
So, yes, a greatest hits comeback tour. But if it's not to be a farewell tour, too, England's management probably need to let him know how much they value him. Moeen is not perfect, of course, but at his best, he's the best England have.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo