Worcestershire spin-bowler Moeen Ali is almost certain to make his England debut this week as the national side resume battle with Sri Lanka in a 2-Test series. His reaction to the step-up to Test level has been a confident one but his selection – along with fellow newcomers Chris Jordan and Sam Robson – could be doing little more than papering over the gaping cracks.Embed from Getty Images
Ali’s appointment comes at a time when we have very little else in the vein of top-class England spinners. Lead spin coach Peter Such declared that the “spin crisis” won’t last, but it’s hard to have any faith in this point of view when our next best option, a perennial second-best, is Monty Panesar, who was dropped by Essex last week for poor time-keeping. His disciplinary history is chequered at best and would detract from an England team attempting to put the discord of the past few years behind them. Alternatively, Scott Borthwick and Simon Kerrigan have each had Test debuts to forget and aren’t viable options.
So it’s Ali, then, who will pair with Joe Root as the spin options whilst a pace-bowling attack led by the experienced James Anderson and Stuart Broad attempt to do the most damage. Following their tour stalemate with Northamptonshire, Sri Lanka vice-captain Lahiru Thirimanne revealed that his team don’t particularly fear the spin options that England are presenting, although they are well aware that the rest of England’s attacking prowess when it’s their day. Crucially, Thirimanne acknowledged that his opponents are a side in progress: “In English conditions, I think the England attack is the best in the world. But at the moment, they have some new fast bowlers – so we have a little bit of a chance, because they are regrouping their side.”
If Sri Lanka aren’t too worried about Ali, why then he is feeling so confident? The Worcs bowler also offers a few options in the batting department, only last week netting his first century of the season with a score of 162 in his last County Championship match against Surrey at The Oval, admittedly a Division Two affair. However, it’s his bowling he’s focusing on and has been working on being the first Englishman to perfect a doosra – a bluffing off-spin delivery designed to confuse the batsman into making a poor shot – which he’s learned from fellow County player Saeed Ajmal. On unveiling this tactic at international level: “I’ve worked really hard with it over the last month or so,” Ali was quoted as saying. “If I feel confident and get a couple of good days in practice then I’ll be ready to bowl it.”
Ali’s promotion to Test cricket has been a welcome distraction from England’s final ODI with Sri Lanka, which featured the stumping of Jos Buttler in “controversial” fashion with the batsman straying out of his crease one too many times. The debate has raged on for far too long; was this dismissal against the “spirit of the game”. Now, I’m by no means an expert on cricket, but this notion seems ridiculous. It’s in the rules, Buttler was warned several times and, in essence, he’s cheating. England have done similarly suspect things in the past. Time to move on.
Both this debacle and the new national line-up hides the underlying problem of all forms of the England squad being inept at winning. From the Test side’s utter capitulation in the 5-0 Ashes reverse whitewash, the embarrassment of a 45 run defeat to the Netherlands in the World Twenty20 and, more recently, the one-day side all out for 99 (although, admittedly, only 3 days before a 10 wicket win against the same team), nobody fears England any more. They’ve lost that effect that visiting teams had when stepping onto Lord’s or Trent Bridge and the like. Bringing in Ali, Jordan, Robson and the return of Liam Plunkett might have the coincidental effect of forging a random one-off win but can it really be considered to be the start of a new golden generation of English cricket? Haven’t we been here before, with the debuts of Nick Compton and Michael Carberry being solid, but uninspiring affairs? New players often inspire confidence, and may start reassuringly well, but one player does not make a match-winning team.Embed from Getty Images
Kevin Pietersen was once an exception to that rule, but it’s probably for the best after the months and years of media speculation regarding the changing room. Admit or not though, but England have continued to suffer without him. Graeme Swann’s retirement and Jonathan Trott’s prolonged illness don’t help, either. We’ve still got ECB Player of the Year Ian Bell to lead the line when on top form and captain Alastair Cook can sometimes be relied on to produce a top score. But it’s not enough. The team is too often devoid of top talent in the big games.
It really is too soon to expect too much from these two Tests. It’s a long-term rebuilding process and the three new players can’t be expected to produce miracles. Chris Jordan has been a revelation in the shorter forms of the games and maybe, just maybe, he can translate that into top-level international cricket in the years to come. Maybe Moeen Ali will prove to be a viable, long-term option in the spin department, supplementing this with middle-order batting.
The real answers will come when India come calling, just two weeks after Sri Lanka depart and it’ll be then when the new breed need to show they are ready to be in the England side.