Whenever England announce their squad at the start of a Test series there is a reaction.
A player who simply had to be picked, another who has no right whatsoever to be included – not after what happened last time – and as for these selectors…
When it is an Ashes series that is ratcheted up several notches to the extent that one might begin to wonder whether social media really is the best place to go for a reasonable exchange of articulate and informed views.
Nevertheless, shortly after 11am on Saturday morning I decided to have a glance at the comments below the announcement of England’s 14-man squad for the first Test against Australia at Edgbaston.
As ever there were people expressing their disappointment that certain players had been left out, Warwickshire’s Dom Sibley cropped up several times, but it was the omission of Jack Leach that had most riled fans.
Given Leach was named man of the match in England’s win over Ireland, on the face of it at least, that is understandable. Less so are the calls for him to replace the ‘out of form’ Moeen Ali.
Let’s start with Leach though. Unless you want him to open the batting, the idea that his performance at Lord’s should have earned him a place in the latest squad is flawed. As impressive, and crucial, as his 92 as nightwatchman was – and there is no doubt it showed up a few of the England top-order – he was selected for his bowling.
Three wicketless overs for 26 are not figures that demand a bowler’s inclusion for the next game. Of course, spinners barely featured in the Ireland match and the argument for the Somerset left-armer to be picked is not just based on one game.
Leach has shown his skills with the ball, accuracy and consistency key among them, in the County Championship time and again over the past three seasons and impressed on England’s tour of Sri Lanka last winter, taking 18 wickets at 21.83. Add the Ireland Test and his debut in New Zealand and Leach’s record, albeit from a small sample size, still holds up: 20 wickets at 26.20.
But the problem is that England are likely to play only one spinner during this Ashes series and that position is taken. Which brings us to Ali.
“[England] would be doing [Rory] Burns and Ali a disservice by picking them, they’re so out of form,” Bob Willis said on Friday’s Cricket Debate.
Now far be it from me to contradict a former England captain and a man who undoubtedly knows more about cricket than I could even comprehend but in this instance, where Ali is concerned, I would respectfully disagree.
The issue facing Ali is that he is regarded as an all-rounder. Rightly so, given his contributions with both bat and ball over the years. However, it also means that when he is struggling with one discipline, as he undoubtedly has done with his batting of late, his efforts with the other are often overlooked.
It has been a case of diminishing returns with the bat for Ali, at international level at least, for the past couple of years. You have to go back to December 2016 for his last Test century, against India in Chennai, and while he enjoyed some success the following summer with scores of 87 and 75no against South Africa and an 84 versus West Indies, since the start of the 2017/18 Ashes series he has managed only two half-centuries in 28 Test innings.
The manner of his dismissals only makes matters worse. The free-flowing strokeplay that makes him so good to watch when he is in form serves only to invite criticism when he isn’t and gets out wafting outside off stump, pulling, hooking or simply holing out to the only fielder in the deep the ball after hitting a boundary. It is easy to understand the frustration that follows such soft-looking dismissals.
This is where the idea that he is out of form comes from, it is why there are people on social media up in arms that he has been picked ahead of Leach and others apoplectic that he has been picked at all.
Ali also does a bit of bowling for England though and it turns out he is pretty good at it.
In the past 12 months he has taken 45 Test wickets at 23.13 in the nine matches he has played. That is not just good, that is more Test wickets than any other player for any country has managed in that time – Pakistan’s Yasir Shah is second with 38 followed by Australia’s Nathan Lyon on 37.
Since the start of 2017, Ali has taken 80 wickets at 28.92 and that includes his nightmare Ashes tour in 17/18 where he averaged 115. A more than respectable record for a man who viewed himself as England’s second spinner even as he topped the wicket-taking charts against South Africa that summer.
And it is in England is where he has really excelled.
The off-spinner has played 10 home Tests in that same period of time with a return of 43 wickets at 21.04 apiece. That is excellent by anyone’s standards, especially in England where pitches more often than not favour seam over spin.
On the occasions when Joe Root has needed to look to his spinner to try and bowl a side out on a deteriorating day four or five surface, Ali has delivered. On his return to the side in Southampton last summer, he did just that, taking 4-71 to go with his first-innings 5-63 to guide England to a 60-run win, having set India 245 to win.
The previous summer he took 5-69 in the fourth innings at Old Trafford, including the key wicket of Hashim Amla to break a stubborn fourth-wicket partnership that for a short time had given South Africa hope of chasing the 380 they needed to win. Earlier in that series he had become the first England spinner to take a hat-trick in 79 years to seal a win at The Oval.
“The problem with Moeen Ali is that his good is very good but there is no in between with him really,” Rob Key said recently. “I would give him the chance to come good. With the Ashes, a massive Test series like this, you just want Moeen Ali’s good because that is outstanding.”
Consistency may occasionally be an issue for Ali but even that tends to be away from home. On home soil, his recent record shows he has been a figure of reliability with the ball. That is why he is still in the England side.
In Leach they have a very capable deputy but if Ali’s form with the ball holds then that is what he will remain.
So England fans should prepare themselves for that familiar feeling of anguish as the left-hander top-edges a Mitchell Starc bouncer straight to fine leg or snicks off against Pat Cummins playing an airy-fairy drive. The hope is that it comes when he has put a few runs on the board.
But even if it doesn’t, it might just be worth it if he can replicate his 2017 and 2018 form with the ball and nick off David Warner and Steve Smith a couple of times.