Opinion: Ali’s an individual in an identikit England

Blog Opinion

'Staid', 'reactionary', 'outdated' and 'a bastion of tradition'. All words that can be accurately used to describe English cricket. From the egg and bacon ties at Lord's to the inherent conservatism of its fan base.

Red balls are best, coloured clothing is gauche and unseemly. As the 21st century hurtles forward, cricket in England stays the same.

The belief that you should allow for declarations and drawn matches is stifling involvement at club level. As the rest of the cricketing universe look to the World Cup, England are talking about the next Ashes.

Cricket in England doesn't move with the times, and for many that is to its credit. It is a pastime of a different era, one that is a link to the past that many are loathe to relinquish.

At the R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo the old and the new collided, not between opponents, but at the top of the England batting order. A public school educated captain walked out to bat with a British Asian from a Birmingham comprehensive.

That our society has led to this combination being a reality is without doubt to our credit. The days when class and race would be either a help or a hindrance are slowly coming to an end.

As Alastair Cook stumbled to yet another ODI failure in the first ODI, Moeen Ali played modern cricket with a modern approach. Ali has been embraced by nearly every England cricket fan, and perhaps the most obvious reason for that is how different he is from the norm. His flowing beard and calm demeanour single him out as an individual in the identikit England set up.

His career has not been without controversy. He wore some wristbands showing support for Palestinians caught up in conflict and that angered some people, as if sport and politics have never mixed, which of course it always has.

When he mentioned that his religion was a motivation, one sentence in a wide-ranging interview, he was attacked by some for putting his faith over his country. This was, of course, nonsense, but it did show that while society is getting more inclusive we have more work to do.

Moeen was booed by certain sections of his home town crowd who were supporting India. It seemed to be because Moeen is of Pakistani descent. This led to accusations of racism, which perhaps was failing to understand the intricacies of relations between India and Pakistan. It was unseemly regardless, but once again Moeen was at the centre of it.

While this controversy has followed Moeen off the field, on it he has excelled. His century in the first match of this series was the third fastest ODI hundred in England's history, and it contained the fastest fifty ever made by a man in an England shirt.

But the most striking thing about it was the "see ball, hit ball" nature of the knock. As he passed his half century he seemed to lose his rhythm. All of a sudden there were the swishes outside the off stump that had led to many suggesting he would never be a Test match batsman.

He weathered that storm, but not by going into his shell. Rather, he stayed positive. He backed his game. Moeen rode his luck at times, he was dropped twice and the ball rolled into his stumps once, but none of that took the gloss off this effort.

If just one more top order player could have hung around, if Ravi Bopara had been allowed to bat higher than seven in the order, if Moeen himself hadn't dabbed at a Jeevan Mendis slower ball, England could have won.

The worrying thing for England is that in 2014 two of their young batsmen have played two of the most remarkable innings England fans have seen, and they still lost.

At Lord’s against the same opponents Jos Buttler reached his century off 61 balls, the best ODI hundred England fans have seen in many years, maybe it was the best ever. It still wasn't enough.

In the second ODI, Moeen failed. He played an attacking shot early and departed. That is the life of an international opener, especially in limited overs games. What Moeen has shown in his short career is that there is the talent to play attacking cricket in England. The selectors just need to pick them.

Alastair Cook scored a sedate 22 in the second ODI, getting out to his first attacking shot. It is now 55 international innings since he last scored a century. There may be 22 yards separating Moeen and Cook when they are batting together, they often look 22 years apart.  

Peter Miller