Moeen Ali riding the confidence wave as England chase twin white-ball glory
Apart from bowling in the powerplay, Moeen's promotion to No. 3 against South Africa signals faith of his captain
Moeen Ali has achieved just about everything he could hope for in an England shirt, but he may come to look back at this week as the most important of his international career.
Moeen has been a key contributor in sides that have won Test series against Australia and India, has scored eight international hundreds, taken five five-fors and a hat-trick, and was an ODI regular in the years leading into the 2019 World Cup win. But over the next six days, with the backdrop of English cricket's overdue introspection on matters of race, diversity and inclusion, the highest-profile British Asian player in the game could take centre stage in England's bid to hold both World Cup trophies simultaneously.
Media duties are a thankless task for players during major tournaments, not least in a biosecure environment when it is already hard to switch off from the game, and doubly so when the issues at hand are so serious. Moeen was asked at length after England's training session on Monday afternoon about the squad's discussion of Yorkshire's report into Azeem Rafiq's allegations, the diversity of the dressing room and his own experiences within the game, speaking openly and cogently on pressing issues.
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The overriding impression over the last month has been that Moeen's confidence - a vital intangible for a player whose form has fluctuated more than the price of a cryptocurrency - has been restored, with the results borne out in his performances in this World Cup to date. He was England's tightest bowler in the Super 12s despite bowling the bulk of his overs in the powerplay, and was promoted to No. 3 to target the short boundary during their chase against South Africa on Saturday; it defies belief that he sat on the bench in ten consecutive T20Is between last November and this June.
It would be easy to attribute Moeen's self-belief to his retirement from Test cricket. The daunting prospect of a full winter on the road if he had been involved in this winter's Ashes has been replaced by two months back home with his young family before England's next white-ball engagement, a five-match T20I series in Barbados in January; so that is unlikely to have hurt his frame of mind in this World Cup.
But perhaps the more pertinent factor is that Moeen feels valued again, after spending far too long playing a bit-part role in England's T20 side. After he was left out of the second T20I against Sri Lanka this summer, he had played only 12 of their last 41 games in the format. In those rare appearances, he faced more than a dozen balls only twice and bowled an average of 10.7 balls per game.
They have never lacked for talented allrounders but England's reluctance to use him stood in stark contrast to his value on the open market, evidenced by Chennai Super Kings' willingness to pay INR 7 crore (£690,000 approx.) for him in this year's IPL auction. Moeen said on Monday that his role as a senior player in their title-winning season had "helped massively", not only giving him renewed self-confidence but also in turn reminding England of his worth.
"The confidence is high and I just feel like a big part of the team," he said. "I've got very important roles and I'm really happy with my game and the way we're playing as a team. To be given that responsibility with the new ball or just outside of the powerplay, and then going up the order when Morgs [Eoin Morgan] gives me the nudge, it's always great.
"I just feel like I'm playing really well, and I think the captain sees that and he wants to use that as much as he can as well. [Chennai had] given me responsibility at No. 3, given me the confidence that you're going to play and have a big role with the team. I felt like I learnt so much about cricket and batting. I had some great chats with MS [Dhoni], the coach [Stephen Fleming], the players and Mike Hussey… I just felt like my game got better and better as I was going on."
The result is that Moeen has become a key player with both bat and ball, filling the void left by Ben Stokes and Sam Curran's absences - ironically, both related to injuries picked up playing in the IPL. He had explained earlier in the tournament that he has used to "try and sneak my way through" powerplay overs by "trying to bowl darts", but has come to see his role with the new ball as "an opportunity to take wickets".
With the bat, he came in at No. 3 - his preferred spot in domestic and franchise cricket - for the first time in six years against South Africa on Saturday night, after Jos Buttler sent a message back to the dugout saying that he was the man for the job. Sixes off Tabraiz Shamsi and Aiden Markram showcased his unparalleled ability to take down spinners, and with favourable match-ups against his former Worcestershire team-mates Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi ahead in Wednesday's semi-final, it is a role he could fill again.
Helping England lift the trophy on Sunday night "would be amazing", Moeen says. "In 2019, I didn't play the semi or the final: I was obviously disappointed slightly that I wasn't playing but I wasn't down. I was still there for the boys and I felt like I was out there. [But] it would mean a lot to do well and to lift the World Cup and be part of a squad that lifts both white-ball trophies."
It would surely be his finest achievement yet.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98