Moeen Ali: Leading England in Pakistan an 'awesome' honour

Stand-in captain proud to take charge in country where his grandfather was born

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
The sense of occasion will not be lost on Moeen Ali when he walks out for the toss at Karachi's National Stadium on Tuesday night. Jos Buttler's calf injury means that he will captain England against Pakistan, the country from which his grandfather emigrated after the second world war, on their first tour of the country in 17 years.
He has led England four times before but this time will feel different. "Being captain, regardless of who it's against, is a great honour," he said. "But to do it in Pakistan, coming back after so long… on top of that, having family who migrated from here back in the day, it's amazing to lead the England side. It's awesome."
Along with Adil Rashid, his close friend, Moeen is one of the two most prominent British Asian cricketers of his generation. "I feel like I represent my religion, parents, and everything," he said. "It's a very proud moment for me and my family, my mum and dad, everybody. Everyone who I feel I represent is very happy for me."
When England last toured in 2005, Moeen was a teenager on an Under-19 tour of Bangladesh. He does not remember much about it - "was that the one we won in the dark?" - but his cousin, Kabir Ali, was part of the limited-overs squad and nearly pulled off an improbable win in the fourth ODI.
For most of his international career, he feared he would never get this opportunity. "I'm somebody that wants to play cricket in every cricketing nation," he said. "Pakistan and Zimbabwe were the two I've really wanted to tour. It's amazing that we're here: it's a big thing for England to come to Pakistan."
When the teams played in the UAE in 2015, the prospect of a return to Pakistan "was just never spoken about", Moeen recalled. "But then, I thought this might have come a bit earlier: we were due to come last year. Then we heard that we wouldn't be coming."
The ECB's decision to pull out of that two-match tour at the last minute drew strong criticism, both in Pakistan and back home. Was he disappointed? "Of course. You don't know if you're going to come the next year, because things change and all that."
He used to visit family in Pakistan as a young boy, then returned to train in his father's academy as a teenager but did not come back for 15 years until the PSL, where he represented Multan Sultans in 2020. "It wasn't just about coming over to play PSL; it was also to play cricket in Pakistan, be part of that and almost put it back on the map."
He is still weighing up whether or not to make himself available for England's Test tour here, which takes place immediately after the T20 World Cup. "I'm not sure yet. I've obviously got to speak to Baz McCullum… I want to see how this goes first."
There is a sense of regret that Moeen is speaking in the executive boardroom of the five-star hotel to which England are confined throughout their stay in Karachi. Barely ten minutes' walk away, hundreds of locals are playing tape-ball cricket at the old polo ground but the players' VVIP status means their experience of Pakistan will be limited to two hotels, two stadiums and the journeys between them.
"Sometimes it can feel like you could be anywhere in the world," he says. "You're in the hotel and you're stuck in it: you could be in Barbados. We're obviously here to play cricket and win, but also for the crowds and to experience all that.
"It's been really good so far, it's just not easy when you can't go out. Not mentally or anything, just more that you want to see the country as much as you can. That's the sad thing, actually, about the tour."
But England are not taking their status for granted, with millions of rupees poured into their presidential-style security at a time when so much of Pakistan is suffering due to the heavy flooding that has destroyed homes, crops, livestock and health facilities.
Proceeds from ticket sales for Tuesday's first T20 international will go to the prime minster's flood relief fund, and England's players have made a donation to the Disasters Emergency Committee fundraiser that has been matched by the ECB.
"These things, for me, are more important [than cricket]," Moeen said. "If we can do as much as we can to raise funds or help in any way, that's really important. Those are the most important things in life and sometimes you do feel bad.
"You're here on tour, playing cricket and getting paid and there are people not far away who are struggling. Sometimes you as players are probably bringing a smile on their face by playing and just taking their mind off it or whatever. But it is really sad."
At 7.30pm on Tuesday night, the cricket will take over as England play the first of 11 games (seven in this series, three against Australia, and an official warm-up against - who else? - Pakistan) which they will use to build up for next month's T20 World Cup. After a poor white-ball summer, they could do with a series win.
"It's important we don't put pressure on ourselves and say 'we are going to win the World Cup'. I don't think we're favourites now; we are one of the better sides, but not favourites. This summer was quite poor for us. We didn't play very well at all. This is going to be the starting point: you are going to see a real change in the way this side plays and goes about things."
In the meantime, one thing is taking up more of Moeen's time than anything else: sorting out free tickets. "It's a bit of a killer for me at the moment," he said with a grin. "For some reason, a lot of friends are over here from England who I know quite well.
"There are a lot of people in England who know people over here who need tickets. I've had so many messages." Whether they make it to the National Stadium or not, Tuesday night promises to be a memorable occasion.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98