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

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page -

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

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