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'I was wasted, but in a good way' - Why Moeen Ali felt it was time to retire from Test cricket

Allrounder believes he could have batted like Ben Stokes given the chance to perform

George Dobell
George Dobell
Moeen Ali knew the exact moment he had to retire from Test cricket. He had won a long-awaited recall to the England side and he was involved in a thrilling match at Leeds. But in that Test and the following one at The Kia Oval, he found himself unable to fully concentrate.
It wasn't that he didn't care. Far from it. But, after a couple of years playing short-format cricket, he found he no longer had what it took to flourish in Test cricket. He just couldn't, as he puts it, "get in the zone" anymore.
"I felt like I was done, to be honest," he says now. "I was hoping to play the last Test - there were a couple of milestones I wanted to pass - but once that game got called off, I realised that was it.
"Headingley was a great win but I just found I couldn't concentrate. I've played rash shots before and had poor games before. But I just felt like I wasn't in it. I've never felt that before. It's not that I didn't want to perform, I just didn't feel like I was fully wholeheartedly into it.
"You try your best. I just found it really hard to get in the zone bowling, batting and in the field. And the more I tried, I just couldn't do it. In the past when I came back into the team, it might take a bit of time but then I'm all in. But that series, I just couldn't do it.
"The atmosphere felt really good. It was really nice to be back in the dressing room. But I just found cricketing-wise it was a bit of a struggle."
The roots of the decision stretch back far further, though. Ever since Moeen lost his full central contract, at the end of the 2019 English summer, he started to feel disjointed from the Test squad. And without that contract to rely upon, he started to pursue franchise opportunities as more of a priority. He reflects now that it set him "on a different path" from the rest of the team.
"That did break me a little bit," he says of the decision not to give him a full central contract. "I felt like I had a poor game [at Edgbaston in 2019] and rightly got dropped. But I felt I was at my peak in my bowling to that point.
"If you look back now, I didn't play towards the back end of the World Cup. We then had a Test against Ireland in which I hardly bowled and then two days of training for the first Ashes Test. It rained on those days, so I bowled indoors.
"So, I didn't really get the preparation I would have liked and I didn't bowl very well in that game. But I felt like I was still at the peak of my bowling. Prior to that, I was bowling better than I ever had in Test cricket.
"And then I didn't get a contract. I had asked for a break and was told it was because they weren't sure how much I was going to play. It was very disappointing at the time. So I looked to crack on and play franchise cricket.
"But then it possibly took too long to make my way back into the team. I didn't play enough first-class cricket and by the time I did get back into the team for that one Test in Chennai, I was on a different path.
"I don't think I lost interest in Test cricket but I think I lost the ability to do it as best as you can.
"There was part of me thinking about the Ashes this winter. I would have loved to go back and do well because last time I didn't do so well. But I just felt like I couldn't do it for that long. It's such a long trip if I'm not 'in it'. If I felt like I did in India when I was out there, then I would probably retire after one match. So it's done."
He admits he will miss it. In particular, he knows he will miss that sense of delighting a full-house crowd.
"Test cricket is amazing," he says. "When you're doing well, or when you have a good day, it is a better feeling than any other format of the game by far. It is more rewarding and you feel like you've earned it. Very rarely do you bowl poorly and get five wickets or play poorly and get a hundred. You've done something really well.
"The hat-trick at the Oval and the 2015 Ashes are probably the highlights for me. There's been some really good moments but I think they're the two that really stand out.
"I enjoyed being a crowd pleaser. When you hit a boundary, like a nice cover drive, and the crowd appreciate it… The buzz you get at Lord's - that noise - is completely different to anywhere else in the world. And the noise at Edgbaston is also something I'll definitely miss.
"But the best was when I batted at Old Trafford against South Africa in 2017 [Moeen made an unbeaten 75 from 66 balls]. I was just trying to play a lot of shots and it was coming off. The crowd was going mad and my son was old enough to understand the songs. After that day he really loved cricket.
"I've had some amazing support. But the one group of fans that I would definitely praise is the Barmy Army. There was a time where I wasn't playing so well, and throughout the whole day they just kept singing my name and trying to encourage me. They were always on your side, no matter what. They are an amazing group of supporters; they are the heartbeat of Test cricket in England."
With the ball, Moeen is fulfilled. Indeed, he accepts he has probably overachieved for a player who grew up identifying as a batter who bowled a little. But, while he is keen not to dwell on regrets, he admits there is a sense of "wasted" potential over his batting.
"Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would get so many," Moeen says of his 195 Test wickets. "I remember hitting 50 Test wickets; it seemed amazing. But, from a bowling point of view, I felt like I could, with my best ball, get anybody out. That was a really good feeling. And it's always nice when you get the top players out. I'm really proud of that.
"And with the bat… well, initially, at least I always had that feeling that I was trying to score a hundred. And I used to love that feeling, because that really made me feel like a batsman.
"But then I was in a team as a bowler and I concentrated on my bowling more in practice. I didn't practice my batting as much. I look back and think I could have done better.
"That century in my second Test [against Sri Lanka at Leeds in 2014] was my best by far. I didn't even look at my bowling at that time. I just thought if I get a few overs, happy days. But my mindset with the bat was different. I was myself as a batter.
"I feel a little bit wasted batting down the order. It's not easy. I moved up and down the order such a lot. I think anybody would be quite unstable at times.
"I do feel like my batting was a little bit wasted. I could have done better than I've done. I feel like I could have scored more Test hundreds, for sure"
"I just remember when we played New Zealand [at Lord's in 2015] and Ben Stokes had that amazing Test. I'd been batting at No. 6 and he was No. 8. I think I'd scored 60-odd in my last Test at No. 6 in Barbados. But Alastair Cook said, 'look, I know you're playing well, but we're going to swap things around because we think Stokesy can do more.' It was disappointing. I wouldn't say I knew it was the right decision.
"Obviously Stokesy turned out to be an amazing player. But I sometimes feel, maybe, that could have been me if I was given a bit more of a run there. I would have loved to bat up the order more. I didn't always have the temperament or the technique but I certainly feel if I'd been given a run somewhere for a while I'd have been fine.
"I do feel like my batting was a little bit wasted. I could have done better than I've done. I feel like I could have scored more Test hundreds, for sure. I could have scored a lot more runs.
"But maybe it was the reason I played so many Tests. If I'd [just] batted at No. 6 and not done well, I would probably have been dropped. So being an all-rounder, being someone who would do whatever was best for the team, is the reason I've played 60 Tests. It's more than I ever thought I'd play.
"It's always nice when you look back and think I did do a lot more for the team then probably another guy. It's fine. I feel like I was wasted but wasted in a good way."
Such regrets are few and far between. Instead, Moeen's conversation is littered with happy memories and people to whom he owes thanks. With no social media platform of his own - he gave that up after the criticism of his performances in the 2017-18 Ashes started to play on his mind - Moeen is making the announcement of his decision to retire from Test cricket to a couple of media outlets (ESPNcricinfo and the Guardian) and requests only the inclusion of some personal thank yous in return.
Among them are his coaches, Chris Silverwood, Trevor Bayliss and, in particular, Peter Moores, who demonstrated such belief in him. His captains, Cook and Joe Root, are also thanked, while his "brothers and sister" are praised for "supporting no matter what". His wife is also credited for her "support and patience".
"They always wanted to try to lift me up and do well," he says of his family. "Everything I did I did for those guys."
But it is the enormity of the sacrifices his parents made, the couple who went without food to ensure he had every opportunity to excel at cricket, which have left the most lasting impression.
"My parents are number one," Moeen says. "Without their support there is no way I'd have made it on the journey they took me on. I know that, deep down, they're really proud of me. The sacrifices they made were amazing. Every game I played was for them."
Moeen's career will always have a wider significance, though. His preparedness to speak about his faith, and act as a role-model for the British Muslims, may well endure after memories of his batting and bowling dim.
"I did feel like you there was a bigger purpose for me than just batting and bowling," he says. "There was a purpose of trying to inspire others. It's a big thing, but it didn't feel like a burden.
"When I was doing well, it was great. It would be 'Moeen is a role model' but when things weren't so good it was highlighted a bit more. From the moment I wore those Palestinian wristbands, it would break out to be bigger news than intended. But that's a proud moment for me, really. I didn't mean it to happen, but I did wear them to increase awareness.
"I hope things will be easier for the next British Muslim. And I think they will be, too. It always takes somebody to inspire you or say 'if he can do it, so can I'. I certainly felt that way when I saw Hashim Amla when I first saw him on TV. There were guys at Warwickshire who played before me who made it easier. Ravi [Bopara] made it easy for me to get used to the England environment on a different level.
"It does take a little spark and hopefully I've provided that. I'd love one day, in 10 years' time, somebody to say 'Moeen made it easier for me'.
"So, even though I feel like I could have done better, I'm really pleased. For someone from where I've come from… I am really happy and content with how I did."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo