Moeen Ali ‘I have an English grandmother called Betty Cox – and that surprised a few’
Moeen Ali’s success in Sri Lanka was down to Root’s captaincy – and chess, he tells Nick Hoult
Mike Brearley, the former England cricket captain, spoke to the BBC this week on the subject of how to become a good leader, and defined the importance of resourcefulness. It is about “giving people ideas that expand their play rather than contract it”, he said.
Sitting opposite me is Moeen Ali, who is an example of how Joe Root, a young captain “with cricketing and emotional intelligence to a high degree”, according to Brearley, runs the current England team.
Moeen has just returned from his best overseas tour as a spin bowler. But it was not just the number of wickets (18 at 24.50 apiece) that should be used as a guide when evaluating his performance, but how he matured into a middle-management role bestowed on him by Root.
Moeen was appointed the captain of the spin-bowling unit, a way for Root to delegate, but also to empower a player who has lacked self-confidence and been confused about his identity as a spinner.
“We had a plan that I was the spinners’ captain. If somebody had not been in the side then they could go to me first and I would then go to Rooty. We knew the spinners would bowl the most overs, so the last thing you want to do is leave them to it or even have someone going up to them and giving them too much advice. Sometimes that can make things worse. The way we are as people, [Jack] Leach, ‘Rash’ [Adil Rashid] and myself decided from the start it was not about who was going to take the most wickets. We were going to take them all together and not worry what people say from the outside. It took the pressure off. When we were in India [in 2016] it was a bit more individual. It was so different to Sri Lanka.
“When you give players a bit more responsibility, it gives us a voice. We can speak up a bit more. If we have something to say, say it. If you are wrong, it doesn’t matter, just say it. That is important for the new guys coming in.”
Moeen is clearly relishing life under Root, a good handler of people but one who has learnt to be tougher and more streetwise. He toyed with taking the new ball off Stuart Broad in New Zealand in March, but backed away at the last moment. In Sri Lanka, Broad missed the first two Tests, James Anderson the third. It sent a message to the rest of the squad.
“There is more to captaincy than field placings. Anyone can do that. But it was the way he handled pressure in tight situations. He is different, but the best thing was it was his idea to have that spin captain. He said we were going to be different to what we have done before and that was a brave, big step going forward,” says Moeen.
“We have to do that when we go abroad. We have to do things differently. For example, Broady and Jimmy don’t have to play [every game], or we pick two or three spinners. They are legends and greats who have the most wickets and stuff, but only one of them could play [in Sri Lanka]. That was big for the team going forward, because now we are thinking we are not relying just on those two guys. In that part of the world [Sri Lanka], it was our time to step up. It changed the mindset of the team, in that no one is undroppable, and I think that was great.”
Moeen is still shy of saying he is the best spinner in England, but he knows he can bowl at Test level. “I see myself as someone who has got better, more consistent, but still has bad spells. Importantly, I feel I can get the best in the world out now. I try and stay under the radar, but when the big wickets come, there is a lot of pride in the fact it is not just Jimmy and Broady who can get the best players out.”
Tactically, he believes he is improving partly thanks to a rediscovered passion for chess. Alastair Cook used to carry a dart board on tour, others pack a Playstation in their cricket coffins. Moeen could be seen wandering hotel lobbies in Sri Lanka with a chess board under his arm, looking for someone to play. There were not many takers, only Jos Buttler would give him a game (Moeen winning every time, so he says), meaning an England chess club might take a couple more tours to become a reality. “You always have to be a step ahead and I find that interesting. Chess works the brain and I think it could help my cricket if I play a lot. Bowling is a bit like chess, you sometimes need to play the longer game.”
While Moeen’s bowling has thrived, his batting has reversed. Once again, he is the elevator who zips up and down the batting order, often accommodating others who are less willing to be so flexible.
He started the Sri Lanka series at three, dropped to six in Kandy and ended up at seven. It is no wonder he averaged 13, his worst series for England. “I find that the hardest thing at the moment. I have not settled as a batter. It has not been easy, because as soon as you play well you are pushed up the order, you have a couple of chances and you are back down, which is different and difficult. I know it is frustrating for the people paying
and watching, but it is also frustrating for myself. It is difficult to be consistent when you are not consistently getting a spot in the side as a batter.”
The Ashes are looming and Moeen needs his role defined, because he wants to make amends for last winter’s tour to Australia. This week, his recently published book, Moeen, was shortlisted for the Sports Book Awards autobiography of the year.
It made headlines in the summer when he claimed an Australian player called him “Osama” in the 2015 Ashes. Does he believe they will be different next summer after all that Australian cricket has endured in recent months?
“Yes, I think they have to be. I don’t think they will be that much different, but they won’t go overboard [with sledging]. They will come here and play to win. I don’t know what I’m more excited at, the World Cup or the Ashes. We are favourites for the World Cup, we have a good side, probably the best one-day side we have ever had, but we need a trophy. We all believe that this is the time now and we have to go and win it.”
As with most books written by current players, the most interesting stories in Moeen involve the early years. He pays a fond tribute to his parents and the sacrifices they made, but also talks in detail about his white English grandmother, Betty, who married his Kashmiri grandfather.
“A lot of people were not aware of my background and my grandmother being English and white. For me, that was very normal, but for other people it is a surprise, especially now, when I have a big beard and appear like a Muslim. It is stranger now than when I was younger.
“At an England team quiz in Australia, we had to come up with a question about something nobody knew about us. I asked who has a grandmother called Betty Cox? Nobody had a clue. I stood up and the guys could not believe it. There are still families in England who refer to home and mean Pakistan. I have never thought that. I have always thought it was England and I am very proud to have a grandmother born in England and it is great to have Pakistani roots.”
Leading man: Moeen Ali, who is captain of England’s spinners, is pictured at The Grammar School at Leeds, where he was publicising his autobiography