Moeen Ali is the Right Choice — For Now

“It’s a batsman’s game”.

It’s one of the earliest things you learn as a young cricketer, one of the pieces of wisdom that older players will repeat at you, ad infinitum, along with how that they get first dibs on the buffet during the tea break, and ride shotgun on the way home. From the moment we start playing the game in clubs and school matches, we’re told to clap the batsman to the crease, give him as long as he likes to carve his guard into the pitch and, if you do happen to get him out, that he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt. It’s a batsman’s game.

This attitude seems to stick with the lucky few who ascend the ladders of the game, and are given the opportunity to play professionally. Prevailing attitudes towards mankads, ‘chuckers’, and the recent Ben Stokes dismissal (which was definitely out, as you asked), demonstrate cricket’s bias towards those holding the willow ahead of those with the leather.

Recent innovations have led to bigger bats and flexible rules regarding switch hits, both of which are tremendous fun and brilliant for the game – but they do all seek to improve the life of the batsman above else. Which is why it’s so odd when an area of discussion arises where the batsman seems to be neglected, and bowlers are looked after; one such area is that of ‘horses for courses’ selections, which has come to the fore once more with the debate over who should open for England against the UAE tomorrow; Alex Hales, or Moeen Ali.

Whenever English journalists, pundits and supporters glance upwards to the normally grey skies, and see an unfamiliar yellow orb glowing down on them, they panic. They instinctively call for two, three, four spinners, maybe even five if it’s over 20 degrees, as there’s no possible way the bowlers could adapt to bowl on the newly baked surface. But this panic subsides when they turn to the top order. How to go about selecting batsman to deal with this specific and unusual challenge, with so many technical and tactical considerations? Oh, just pick the team we had last time. They’ll work it out.

When England embarked on the disastrous 2013/14 tour of Australia, their insistence on picking an unfit, old and out of form Chris Tremlett was based partly on his record from the previous tour, but largely on his height, on his suitability for the conditions. He failed, miserably. Yet his was a failure England could’ve got over, if the batsman had faced up to the ferocity of Mitchell Johnson. Yet in a series which was lost on batting failures, few acknowledged that in much the same way that some bowlers are suited to certain conditions, some batsman will not succeed on particular wickets. Even fewer suggested this idea could inform selection. When England did make a batting change, they brought in Jonny Bairstow, a player then defined by his weakness against the short-pitched bowling the Australian pitches were built for. He made 59 runs in four innings.

Earlier this year, going into the Test series in the West Indies, the clamour for the selection of Adil Rashid was deafening. The slow, low turners in the Caribbean called for a wrist-spinner to break partnerships, the ultimate horses for courses selection. Peter Moores ignored him after a poor showing in the warm-up against St. Kitts. England drew the series. Moores lost his job. However, the point is that people recognised that Rashid’s strengths suited the pitch, the game immediately at hand, and wanted to give the Yorkshireman the best chance of succeeding. Whether it’s an issue of personality — although I find Alex Hales’ attitude refreshing, it does rub some up the wrong way — but little of the same care and attention is being paid to blooding Hales as an opener in Tests.

If all goes as expected, England will select Moeen Ali to open the batting alongside Alistair Cook in the first Test match against Pakistan tomorrow (at the time of writing). This is absolutely, without doubt the right decision, giving England the best chance at winning the match at hand. Moeen’s elegant, wristy game has been honed at the top of the order for Worcestershire, on a New Road pitch where the ball rarely reaches waist height. These are familiar conditions for Moeen. He naturally starts quickly against the seamers, but it is his manipulation of the spinners which should have the selectors inking his name into that opening role, moving the ball around and conserving energy, allowing him to go on and make the big hundreds that are so key to sub-continental success.

His promotion opens up a space in the side for James Taylor in the middle order, another wonderful player of spin, who is unlikely to get bogged down against Yasir Shah, equipped as he is with numerous unorthodox release shots. Taylor and Moeen are batsmen sculpted for these conditions, and by comparison, Alex Hales looks like a ballet dancer in rugby boots.

However, a complete turnaround for the South Africa series which follows the Pakistan Tests would not be unwelcome. Tall and muscular, Hales has the potential to pummel seam attacks on bouncy wickets with pace on the ball, much more so than Moeen Ali, who is still somewhat vulnerable to the short ball. The pro-Hales lobbyists insist that it’s daft to drop him in for his first Test against the best team in the world when the opportunity is there right now to give him experience. Firstly, South Africa play so few Tests it’s hard to know quite how good they are, and secondly, how is three hours of nurdling Zulfiquar Babar around an empty UAE stadium is going to prepare Hales for Dale Steyn sending bouncer after bouncer into his grill?

Starting in conditions so utterly suited to his game shouldn’t worry the Nottinghamshire opener, it should be a privilege. Nobody was calling for Rashid to be given his debut at Perth so he would be experienced for the next time we went to the subcontinent. Batsmen, just as much as bowlers, need to be suited to the pitch to a significant level if they are going to contribute, and selecting a player so flagrantly unsuited to the dry, low wickets as Alex Hales would be a disservice to him. Five failures out of six, and in all likelihood he’d be thrown on the scrap heap with Compton and co. So for now, Moeen Ali is the right choice. In a month or so, Hales may well be. Hopefully, they can both pay their parts in two England series wins. Then, and only then, can we sit down and try to get them both in the team.