NEW ROAD has a special name for Moeen Ali. They’re calling him “The Beard That’s Feared”. It’s on the board at the Black Pear Refreshment stall at the back of the Basil D’Oliveira Stand and, much to the delight of the chap in the Worcestershire Club Shop under the new hotel, it’s on the T-shirts he was selling at a healthy rate during their first home match of the season against Kent.
“They only arrived on Monday and we’ll be getting some more in soon,” he says. “We’ll sell a lot more if he plays for England this summer. Though we don’t want him playing for them too much, obviously,” for whatever commercial gain the club might earn from that would be far outweighed by his loss to them on the field.
There’s far more to the PCA 2013 Player Of The Year than facial hair, as he hinted when making his One-Day International and t20 debut for England in the Caribbean and Bangladesh. And many observers see a place for him in the Test side either as a specialist batsman or No.6 and second spinner.
But Moeen Ali is not only ready and willing to talk about the real significance of his most distinguishing physical feature when and if that happens, he sees it as part of his mission to represent the Muslim faith and help encourage tolerance and understanding of the religion where intolerance and misunderstanding still exists.
“I do see the beard as a label,” Moeen explains, “to show that I am representing Islam.
“To me religion comes before cricket, before anything. Islam does not have the best reputation at times but if I can help change maybe one per cent of negative perception that would make me very happy.
“It gives me inspiration to feel that I am representing a large community and I do see myself as a role model. People ask me if I see it as a mission and I do.”
And he is happy to report he has had nothing but support from Worcestershire, lately also from England, as he practises his faith in five sessions of prayer per day, sometimes in the dressing room – from where Graeme Hick once cleared away all his kit to make space –sometimes on the players’ balcony, the physio’s room or even on the outfield and seeks to stay strong in his attempts to help advance greater integration of Asian cricketers into domestic cricket.
“I’ve never had a problem with other players, “ he insists, “and the situation is far better than it used to be.
“Occasionally you get some stick from crowds but it just makes me feel stronger. At times on the road people have started shouting stuff. But that’s usually when they’ve had a few drinks so whoever I’m with at the time I just tell them, ‘that’s one of the reasons we don’t drink’.
“I do find myself being questioned about my faith and having to correct many misconceptions relating to culture instead of religion, about why I wear the beard, about arranged marriages and the perception of the oppression of women.
“I don’t blame anyone for those misconceptions. Before I started learning about Islam and practising the faith I held many of them myself.
“The key thing is to explain and to help people understand. It is our job as Muslims to tell people the message of Islam. If people like it they will accept it. If not, fair enough. No problem.”
Moeen, himself, is in no doubt that his faith has helped his cricket in many ways, though he accepts it has possibly hindered it in one.
“When I was18 or 19 I had a lot of questions in my life that needed answering. I used to have a bit of temper. I used to get angry quick and I was a bit of a naughty boy.
“But my religion helped calm me down and helped me control my anger. So now, while I can see why other people can run into maybe psychological problems with playing this game, I don’t feel I can ever get into that situation.
“If I haven’t scored for a few innings. I think to myself, ‘what’s the worst that can happen? If I lose my job I’ll be happy to find another kind of work’.”
And the drawback? “Islam teaches us that we cannot seek to deceive people so if I nick one I walk. It was tough in my first year because I was given out mistakenly about six or seven times in the space of 20 innings and the coaches said if I kept walking the percentages were never going to go in my favour. But my faith comes before my cricket, so that’s that.”
And what of his cricket, as he looks forward to what many believe could be his breakthrough season? “Being picked to play for England was a fantastic boost and I absolutely loved it. To see them train and to train and play with them makes you want to work even harder to try and stay in or get selected again.
“I was a bit apprehensive but Ashley Giles, the coaches and players made it very comfortable for me.
“It was an eye-opener to play against those great players and some of the bowling was brilliant but I never felt I was out of my depth. Batting against Stuart Broad in the nets, I thought if I can do that I can face most good bowlers.
“As for people tipping me for the Test side, I don’t look into that too much because anything can happen. There has been a suggestion that England might see me more as a middle-order option and second spinner but I’d bat at No. 11 if it meant getting a game.
“Obviously things changed for me after last season, when my form won me a place on the Lions tour. Basically I sat down and thought if I’m going to play for England, I can’t play the way I’m playing – something has got to change.
“I worked on a few technical things, but I also changed my whole mentality towards batting and cut out a lot of shots.
“I used to go out trying to hit a couple of fours early on and go looking for a drive ball.
“Now I leave as much as I can and play as straight as I can and play on instinct. I just decided I was not going to get out lbw or bowled so much – and, thankfully, it worked.”
Indeed it did. Scoring more than 2000 runs and taking 40 wickets in all formats, including the 1375 Championship runs that made him the leading run scorer in county cricket, a measure of his popularity in the domestic game as well as his form was that he was a shoo-in for the Players’ Player award.
Now, just as intriguing for England selectors looking to fill the gap left by the retirement of Graeme Swann, is that he is ready finally to unleash the doosra he has been working on for the best part of a year.
“Saeed Ajmal taught me how to bowl it while he was here at Worcester,” Moeen explains, “and though I cannot pick it because it is as close to unpickable as it could be, I have been working really hard on it and it is nearly ready to go.
“England were encouraging me to bowl it in West Indies and the World t20 and, working with Mushtaq Ahmed in the nets, it was coming out beautifully. I didn’t want to bowl it in the powerplays, but, had I bowled in the ‘middle’ overs, I would have given it a go.
“I came back ready to bowl it in county cricket but the problem so far has been the cold. I just haven’t been able to grip the ball well enough and when I tried it in the first match against Hampshire only one of the three deliveries landed!
“I’m hoping for warmer weather and when it comes I will definitely get it going.
“As long as you can pitch it, once you show the batsman you’ve got it in your armoury, that’s all it takes to put doubt in his mind. That’s what takes half the wickets.”
Even more reason, then, that this could turn out to be the year to fear the beard.