LONDON – A proud Muslim of Pakistani descent featuring a luxuriant black beard has become a cult figure after performing heroics with the ball during England's spirited fight-back in the current series against India.
England, in disarray after their traumatic 5-0 defeat in Australia this year, selected 27-year-old Moeen Ali for the two-test series against Sri Lanka as a batsman who could also fill in with a few overs of off-spin after Graeme Swann's abrupt retirement during the Ashes series.
The left-handed Moeen batted with elegance and composure to record his maiden test century in the second test only to watch helplessly from the other end when James Anderson was dismissed off the penultimate delivery to allow the visitors to snatch their first series victory in England.
Alastair Cook, struggling with both the captaincy and his own batting, rarely entrusted Moeen with the ball. Whereas Swann, the best England off-spinner since Jim Laker in the 1950s, was used as a stock bowler who could both contain and attack, Moeen bowled only 52 overs in four Sri Lanka innings, placing an extra burden on the England pace attack.
England's dismal capitulation in the second test against India at Lord's, with Cook failing again with the bat, placed huge pressure on both team and the captain before the third match at Southampton's Rose Bowl. Both responded. Cook, dropped on 15 in the first innings, recovered his form and England swept to resounding victories at the Rose Bowl and then Old Trafford in Manchester before the fifth and final test starting at the Oval on Friday.
Moeen has been the heartbeat of the revival, taking 19 wickets at 22.94 in four tests and averaging a wicket every 38 balls. By contrast, Swann took 14 wickets in the four-test series against the same opponents in 2011 at a cost of 40.69 apiece. “Graeme who?,” the fans chanted as Moeen was interviewed on television last Friday.
On Saturday, as England completed a victory within three days with Moeen taking four for 39 and effecting a run out, the cry was "Super Mo, super Mo, super Moeen Ali." Moeen has been tutored at Worcestershire by Pakistan's Saeed Ajmal and bowled what is believed to the first doosra (the off-spinner's leg-break) by an England bowler during the second test against Sri Lanka.
But his sudden emergence as a frontline bowler has been credited to team mate Ian Bell, who counselled him to bowl quicker with a tighter off-stump line during net sessions at Lord's. The results have been dramatic. “I haven't seen an improvement like that,” said Cook after the Old Trafford win.
"He gets great drift and he turns the ball," said coach Peter Moores. "He attacks both edges. Test cricket is about how rapidly people grow and he has grown very quickly." Moeen sparked a brief controversy during the first two days at the Rose Bowl when he wore wristbands saying "Save Gaza" and "Free Palestine."
He was backed by the England and Wales Cricket Board but took them off after he was advised by the match referee that they contravened International Cricket Council regulations. Wasim Khan, the chief executive of the Cricket Foundation which promotes the game in state schools, was the first British-born Pakistani to play professional cricket in England. Like Moeen, Wasim was brought up in inner-city Birmingham.
“I've stayed in contact with him pretty much every day through his playing days just to really provide him with support because I know what it's like,” Wasim said in a telephone interview. “I didn't get to play for England but I played at a pretty high level at Warwickshire and Sussex and Derbyshire and I understand the pressures that can be on you,” he said.
Wasim, 43, said Moeen's Muslim faith was paramount. "If someone had said to him 'you need to shave your beard if you are going to play for England' he would have said 'no thank you, my faith is more important to me than playing cricket for England.' “His beard is a representation and a symbol of his faith. It's him, his personal identity, it is what he believes in and he loves playing for England,” he said.
“I think here is a guy, a devout Muslim with a long beard. Who would have thought that 30 years ago that a devout Muslim with a long beard would be out there playing for England,” he said. “He very much sees England as his country and he is as proud as anybody to pull on that sweater and that shirt and that cap and represent England. The name that people have (given) him in a loving way is the "beard to be feared."
“But he actually breaks down stereotypes and my viewpoint is that he has showed the beard not to be feared. “He can mix his strong faith with the fact that he's so passionate about playing for England and wanting to do well for England. I think that has been recognised by all the fans,” he said.
"If cricket disappears tomorrow he will still have this strong faith. For him that is more important, it gives him a different perspective, a different philosophy,” he said. “He's found a place where he is comfortable with himself, comfortable in his skin. He's happy to wear the beard as a symbol of his strong faith. He is happy to be a role model.”