Moeen Ali    Getty Images
Moeen Ali took 19 wickets when India toured England in 2014 Getty Images

Not many had anticipated Moeen Ali to be England s wrecker-in-chief when India toured England the last time, in 2014. You could not blame them. Having made his debut earlier that summer against Sri Lanka, Moeen had sent down 181 runs from 52 overs, and had taken 3 wickets. None of that counted, for England had lost the series, and nobody remembered what Moeen did with ball. He was, after all, supposed to be a batsman who bowled, not the other way round. There was nothing intimidating about his bowling: there was no devious loop, no vicious turn, no mystery ball: he bowled straight darts, the kind of ball spinners are supposed to bowl in limited-overs cricket, not in whites. Full Cricket Scorecard: India vs England 1st Test at Rajkot

At Trent Bridge Moeen had broken the 111-run last-wicket stand in the first innings. In the second, Shikhar Dhawan had hit a full-toss back at him, while Murali Vijay had tried to give him charge and had lost wicket in the process. The only earned wicket had been of Stuart Binny, but not before the debutant had saved the Test with a 114-ball 78.

At Lord s he had Jadeja-d Ravindra Jadeja with a fast, straight ball; the one that had got Binny had more to do with Alastair Cook taking an excellent catch running backwards (once again, Binny had given charge); and the third had been that of Mohammed Shami. Nobody had taken notice of Moeen, more so because Ishant Sharma s terrific fourth innings spell that near-eclipsed everything else that had happened in the Test. READ: India vs England, Test series: 5 Englishmen to watch out for

Moeen s figures in the Lord s Test had read 25-5-66-3. He had done nothing exceptional, but he had done better than was expected of him. The Indians had erred in taking him lightly, and had paid for their complacency. They were, after all, one-up in the series; being wary of the fast bowlers made sense, but spinners? Moeen?

At Rose Bowl Moeen took 2 for 62 and 6 for 67; at Old Trafford, 4 for 39 in the second innings after not bowling in the first; and the seamers were so clinical at The Oval that he needed to bowl a solitary over.

Moeen finished with 19 wickets at 23, exactly at par with Stuart Broad (also 19 wickets at 23), and behind only James Anderson (25 at 20.60). India vs England, 1st Test, Preview and Predictions

The effort was overlooked as a one-off. There was no way there was going to be an encore. The Indians had been complacent. The Indians have traditionally suffered against finger-spin.

Indeed, the wickets dried up. Worse, he went for runs. Since that India series his 25 Tests have yielded 66 wickets at 43.51. His economy rate reads a way-below-par 3.84 (that amounts to 346 runs in a 90-over day, to put things into perspective). All this excludes the recently concluded Bangladesh series; take that out as well, and the numbers read 55 wickets from 23 Tests at 48.28, economy of 3.88. READ: Moeen Ali s success as silent performer heartening for England

No, that does not look good (and I am being polite here) for a man entrusted as England s main spinner for the toughest tour he has had since debut.

There is, however, a very relevant bit of statistic: of all England spinners in the post-World War era with a 75-wicket cut-off, Moeen s strike rate of 62.9 is the third-best, after Graeme Swann (60.1) and Jim Laker (62.9). Again, to put things into perspective, Derek Underwood took a wicket every 73.6 balls, and Tony Lock, one in 75.5.

What does this mean? Moeen has been leaking runs over time, but he has also been taking wickets. His poor average does not have to do with long wicketless phases; it is due to his economy rate.

Post-War England spinners (50+ wickets)

 

Bowler

W

SR

Ave

Econ

Graeme Swann

255

60.1

29.96

2.98

Jim Laker

193

62.3

21.24

2.04

Moeen Ali

88

62.9

39.64

3.78

Derek Underwood

297

73.6

25.83

2.10

Tony Lock

174

75.5

25.58

2.03

You get the basic idea. Swann s economy rate is impressive given the era he has bowled in.

It is remarkable, how Moeen manages to get those wickets. Cook does not really care about how many runs he leaks as long as Moeen gets him wickets. One must remember that Moeen goes for 4.98 an over in ODIs, so he can cut down the runs if needed; but Cook does not really want that. He wants Moeen to play a specific role. The approach is interesting, for Adil Rashid has an identical approach (5 Tests, 15 wickets, average 51, strike rate 76.6, economy 3.99).

Will Cook use one of his spinners to contain and the other to attack, given that Anderson will miss the first Test? Probably.

The main suit

Moeen had a remarkable start to his Test career, with a gritty unbeaten 108 in his second Test, against Sri Lanka at Headingley. His next hundreds came two years later, this summer, one against each of Sri Lanka and Pakistan. And that is not the only thing that has changed for him this year.

Let us do a quick stock-taking. Till this summer Moeen s average languished at 27.91. Since then he averages 49.55. What changed? READ: Adil Rashid: An ideal platform for all-rounder to show what he is made of

Moeen is, by nature, an aggressive batsman (as his ODI and T20I batting strike rates of 97 and 114 will tell you). Blunting attacks is not his forte. He is a natural strokeplayer. While he scored at 47 runs every 100 balls before this new phase, he has been getting them at 60 ever since.

What prompted this? England have found an all-rounder in Ben Stokes. Whether he will fill the boots of Ian Botham or Andrew Flintoff remains to be seen, but he has shown early indications that he is likely to miss as many Tests as those giants.

But England has found other all-rounders as well: Chris Woakes; Jonny Bairstow (why are wicketkeepers not all-rounders); Broad was always there; Rashid; they bat till ten these days, which gave Moeen the freedom to chance his arms when necessary.

Of course, there is that other role, given England s top-order fragility: when they were reeling at 21 for 3 at Chittagong, Moeen grafted and grafted for his 170-ball 68, studded with 8 fours, a six, and what seemed about a million overturned umpiring decisions.

He has adapted: he has failed at the top, but has churned out valuable innings at Nos. 8 and 9, at absurdly contrasting strike rates. Two of his hundreds have come at strike rates above 70; the other, at under 40. He has batted at 7 different positions, and though his runs have come mostly at No. 7, he averages in double-digits at every position.

Moeen is no genius. But Moeen can adapt. He has been pushed up when they have needed a partner for Cook. He has been shoved down when he was not needed. He has grafted and blasted when asked to. In The Ashes last year he batted at 8 and 9 throughout, scoring 77, 15, 39, 0, 59, 38, 30, and 35: no major score, but hardly a failure for someone who batted that low. READ: India vs England: For Zafar Ansari, Test series going to be baptism by fire

This summer, too, when England needed someone to deliver at Edgbaston, Moeen came out at 158 for 5 and delivered with a 118-ball 63. Pakistan got a 103-run lead; England got to 282 for 5 and looked to declare; and out walked Moeen, smashing everyone for an unbeaten 96-ball 86.

And as for bowling, the records tell the story, as mentioned above. Cook wants the opposition to go after him while the seamers put them on a leash; he goes for runs, but he also gives them wickets, which is something no one will have complains with.

This time, however, it will be different. Moeen had done his bit in Bangladesh, but it was not necessary. He would struggle to make it to the Indian side even if they include three spinners and yet he makes the cut as England s lead spinner. That does not sound like an even contest.

But Moeen, as we know, has adapted. Over two seasons he has been England s utility man without making much fuss. He has been the invisible man who has contributed to his side s cause without anyone noticing. READ: England tour of India: All you need to know

This time, however, it has to be different, for Moeen has to shed off that invisibility cloak. It is time he steps up. This series may establish him a champion; it may also push his career back by more than a few notches.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry. He blogs at ovshake.blogspot.com and can be followed on Twitter @ovshake42.)