Joe Root has hailed Moeen Ali as a “natural leader” after his promotion to vice-captain of the England Test team.
Root, the England captain, announced the news on the eve of the fourth LV= Insurance Test against India at the Kia Oval. Moeen, who has previously captained England in a T20I against Australia last year, is deputising for the absent Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler. He has also captained England U19, Worcestershire (he remains their T20 captain when available) and Birmingham Phoenix.
“Moeen is a natural leader,” Root said. “He’s someone that the team gravitate towards for a number of reasons, one of them being the way he understands the game. He’s done wonderfully well when he’s done the role in domestic cricket and obviously last year as well for England in the shorter formats. I’m really excited for him and I think he’s absolutely the right man for the role. He’s got a brilliant cricket brain.”
Moeen described the news as “amazing”. And it’s true, after his tour after his tour to India ended a few months ago, this scenario seemed distant. But he was also “realistic”. He knows that, were Buttler or Stokes available, they would fulfil the role. He also knows that, if Buttler is able to return to the side for the final Test in little more than a week, he will reclaim it. Rory Burns is also understood to have been considered for the role.
But that’s not to say Moeen’s influence will not be beneficial. It was noticeable at the start of the third Test, for example, that James Anderson pointed to Moeen, fielding at mid-off, after claiming the wicket of KL Rahul. That Moeen noticed Anderson was pitching a little short was one thing; that England’s all-time leading Test wicket-taker sought his advice his another. Both bode well.
“He just asked me if he was bowling a little bit too short on this wicket and I said maybe just a little bit,” Moeen said. “It’s scary because Jimmy Anderson’s got so many wickets and telling him to pitch it up is not easy. But next ball he pitched it up and Rahul nicked it. It’s just him throwing ideas at me and me giving my opinion.”
More than that, though, Moeen adds a sense of calm. Perhaps, had he been in the vice-captaincy role at Lord’s, England wouldn’t have been sucked into the barrage of short balls directed at Jasprit Bumrah which was probably the turning point of the match. If India come hard at England this week, as expected, that sense of cool which Moeen has may prove invaluable.
“Some of the stuff the opposition do is just to get us to play differently,” Moeen said. “And I think I’m quite good at controlling that.
“I’ve friends on the opposition team. On the field we play hard but I won’t let a cricket game get in the way of me and my team-mates or me and the opposition. I always think about that. I think about who I’m representing: my family; my parents. There’s more to it than just losing my cool on the playing field.
“I’m expecting India to come out with all that intensity. We were really focused last game and we just concentrated on our own performances. As a team we did fantastically well.
“I’m normally a calm kind of captain with the players but also I’d take the load off Joe a bit. He has a lot on his place. I stand at mid-off and speak to the bowlers about how they want to bowl and what fields they can have. I’ll speak to the bowlers about how I feel a batter is playing and what he’s thinking.”
Ultimately, though, Moeen will want to contribute more as a player. He’s only had two Tests back in the side and, his highest score in his three innings in the series to date is 27. He has also taken four wickets. If he’s going to cement his selection for the Ashes – and he says he is keen to go – he knows he will have to contribute more.
“I know I need to put some performances in to cement my spot in the team,” he said. “I don’t feel I’ve done that yet. But having a couple of games under my belt after quite a long lay-off not playing red-ball cricket, I feel my game is in order now and I’ve got the rhythm a bit more. I know performances are needed.
“The next two games are quite big, from an individual point, to put some performances and keep my spot in the team. Of course, if the Ashes tour takes place, then I’m obviously keen to go and cement my place in the side.
“The thing I take out of this appointment is they obviously consider me somebody who is experienced in the team now and has the character to be VC. I don’t see it as cementing my job. There are performances I need to put in to keep my spot in the team. I know I’m VC because other people aren’t here. For me, going forward, it’s about me putting performances in.”
It would be nice to think that Moeen’s promotion demonstrates increased opportunity for players from state schools and non-white backgrounds. Certainly Moeen hinted this might be the case, suggesting it showed there were rewards to be had “if you do the right things”.
“Whenever you play for England as a British Asian, you’re representing a people, a group,” Moeen said. “I feel they will also be feeling that, in cricket, chances are given if you do the right things and you’re showing the attitude towards the game that you probably should.”
But while the findings of the inquiry into Azeem Rafiq’s allegations of racism at Yorkshire have been neither published nor shared with the ECB, the game’s regulator, and while the figures continue to suggest non-white players and coaches are struggling to break into the professional game, we should probably be careful in making too many presumptions. England have had captains of Asian and African-Caribbean heritage before; it hasn’t provided an accurate reflection of the state of the game as a whole on the issue.
All indications from training as The Kia Oval were that England will make two changes to the side that won in Leeds. Chris Woakes looks set to replace Sam Curran, while Ollie Pope will replace Buttler in the middle-order. Jonny Bairstow will take the gloves. Craig Overton looks likely to take a more permanent role in the slip cordon. Mark Wood, who looks back to full fitness, could well return for the final Test at Emirates Old Trafford.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo