Moeen Ali’s omission from the squad for the final Test of an insanely arduous winter tour has confirmed what even his staunchest supporters had worked out; the Beard that’s feared is in danger of becoming the Beard that disappeared.
They cannot argue with the call. Significantly, and true to his philosophical nature, neither will he.
The question is whether his philosophical nature is actually part of the problem.
For, according to those who have watched his progression closely, Moeen’s outlook on life and cricket has always been based on the outlook that if you expect the worst anything else is a bonus.
Each to his own, but in the context of the cut and thrust of international sport, that does sound suspiciously like fatalism.
On his return from England’s 2016 Test win in South Africa and their almost perfect World T20 campaign I sat down with this softly-spoken and unfailingly polite character to look forward to what the future held for him as an established all rounder across all three formats.
I had expected him to be enthused by the prospect, and, in his own way he was but, while his humility was impressive, it was also slightly disconcerting.
“I know there is more to life than cricket and it can be taken away from you tomorrow,” he said.
“I love playing for England, I never take it for granted; never get complacent as regards selection.
“I never went overboard about my early success it because I knew there would be a lot more tough days to come. This was international cricket. It was going to be hard for me.
“I know I’m not the best player.”
Moeen’s desire to keep expectations as low as possible was sorely tested in the remainder of that year due to the fact that he made 1078 Test runs at 46.87, with four centuries (his highest score of 155 not out against Sri Lanka, 108 against Pakistan at The Oval and two on the losing tour to India) and also took 37 wickets.
The coaching staff, led by Trevor Bayliss, read from the same script when they confirmed they and he regarded Moeen as their second spinner for last summer’s home series against South Africa, behind the debutant Liam Dawson.
Man of the match for his ten wickets in the first Test victory at Lord’s, reaching 2000 Test runs and 100 Test wickets in the same game, until he produced the first hat-trick by an England bowler at the Oval since 1938-39 to give England their 2-1 lead in the grand manner.
Then at Old Trafford, his Bothamesque performance helped clinch their first home series victory over South Africa; 75 not out from 66 balls, with nine fours and three sixes, followed by five wickets for 24 runs in 41 deliveries. BOOM!, as one less well-known for self-effacement might have said.
Yet still, on the eve of the Ashes trip down under, Moeen seemed once again to need his tyres pumping.
Graeme Swann put his spinning finger on it when he warned:” Nathan Lyon is not a better spinner than Moeen Ali. But he is more successful because he believes he is.”
As the series unfolded, Australia’s batsmen worked on his fragile self-esteem by going after him and succeeded brilliantly.
Reflecting on the fact that against his five wickets at 115, Lyon took 21 at 18.99, in the process dismissing him eight times in ten innings, Moeen ruefully admitted:” Australia had a gun spinner bowling brilliantly. We didn’t.”
How much of his problems stemmed from the fact he once again felt exposed because of having the tag of frontline spinner attached, how much from the absence of the player whose presence papers over a multitude of cracks in belief, approach and well, presence, namely Ben Stokes, is open to debate.
And just how fit to owl was he in the opening test at the ‘Gabba?
As always he was searingly honest afterwards, not only about his disappointing performances but how the whole experience affected him.
“I feel like I was letting the team down, the fans down,” he said. “It’s not that you are not scoring runs or not getting wickets. It’s just that you feel, as an individual, you are letting your team-mates down.
“The intensity is quite high and people talking about you all the time gets to you.’
If you let it, some might have added, and maybe this is the crux of the matter.
Cricket is not war, no matter what David Warner would like us to believe, and no-one is suggesting Moeen Ali should stop being one of the nicest blokes in the game.
But perhaps what England need from him from now on is for him to raise his own expectations of what he should be delivering rather than continuing to take the rough with the smooth, to stop hoping for the best and start demanding it.
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