Moeen Ali showcased nerves of steel against Sri Lanka at Headingley © Getty Images
The innings of Moeen Ali at Headingley was one of the best efforts in the face of crisis. Essayed with unbelievable temperament for someone playing his second Test, it was a fascinating mix of poise and panache. Arunabha Sengupta writes that he is a gift to England, as their cricket enters one of the most embarrassing phases.
There was the unmistakable signature of destiny over everything that took place on the final day. Sri Lankans, long neglected by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), treated as one of the minor cricketing nations good for just a short tour before the actual summer set in, clinched a fascinating series win at the very last moment of the game. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, two greats who will perhaps never play Test cricket in England again, finished their cricketing days in the country savouring the long awaited taste of sweetest success.
And in the English ranks, amidst all the disappointment, emerged a new hero — a magnificent man for the gravest of crisis situations. A personification of England’s need of the hour.
Moeen Ali had been obnoxiously harangued by the media during his debut for admitting that he sported a beard to represent his religion. Just a few days later, he stood alone — defiant, classy and sublime over six hours in one of the greatest back to the wall efforts ever witnessed. He kept defending the very England that one particular journalist had uncharitably pointed out should be the limits of representation. He came off the field unconquered after one of the most valiant centuries — while ten other men, mostly clean shaven and a few sporting dapper shorter growths of facial hair, variously succumbed to the Sri Lankan attack.
One cannot help but wonder about the reaction of that journalist from The Telegraph who had himself represented sensationalism rather than the trade of honest journalism with that infamous column.
The innings was the platonic perfection of ideal Test match batting, scripted in the cricketing heaven. Not only did Moeen show exceptional poise and patience in leaving almost every delivery he was not required to play, when he struck the ball it was with caress and timing that soothed the eye and gladdened the heart. Even when he lofted the ball or came down the wicket, there was elegance and élan and minimum of effort and risk.
What stood out even more was his approach. Playing just his second Test, he farmed the strike with the calm and command of a veteran. Even when Stuart Broad joined him at the wicket, a man with a Test highest of 169, he chose to take singles and refuse them as he read the situation. Broad accepted it. So, did everyone else. His stature as a batsman was established, as was his place in the dressing room as a man of merit. Yes, Mr Henderson, irrespective of the length and purpose of his beard.
The way he guided James Anderson during the last wicket partnership was a revelation. The overs ticked by, the nails were bitten down to the quick, the tension approached breaking point. Moeen himself approached his maiden century. And even at 96 he turned down singles. As the hearts throbbed unbearably loud at every delivery, nerves became frayed, fear and frustration showed in all faces, it was Moeen who remained an island of calm.
Anderson faced 55 balls, without scoring a run. It will also go down in history as one of the greatest ducks ever scored. Two more balls and England would be home, just about dry. And then Shaminda Eranga’s ball kicked up and all the trauma of Australia perhaps raced back to the surface of the tailender’s subconscience. The bat was wafted in an awkward fend, and Ranagana Herath, one of the posse of fielders on the leg side close enough to pick the batsman’s pocket, calmly got under the ball.
The moments after the end were poignant as well. Moeen, whose monumental innings had come to nothing, was the man who walked up to console Anderson, the veteran of 93 Tests. All around the waves of Sri Lankan jubilance lapped across the ground. Anderson remained hunched, leaning on the treacherous bat for support. And Moeen walked towards him, the serene calm with which he had crafted the innings and the near-rescue act, was intact even as the final act of defiance had been stopped heart-breakingly short of a fairytale finish.
England have already lost their best batsman, Kevin Pietersen, for eminently non-cricketing reasons. Moeen is an exceptional gift that has come their way as the nation’s course of cricketing journey has stepped into embarrassing quarters. It would be far more prudent for the nation’s media to focus on the superb cricket that the man has brought with him rather than picking on his religious leanings and facial hair.
Take a bow Moeen Ali, you have constructed a priceless gem in the eye of storm.
Catch all news and updates of the Sri Lanka tour of England 2014 here
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)