THE OVAL — I have always liked the idea of attending my funeral. It’s morbid, I get that, but knowing how you’ll be remembered is a privilege few are afforded.
In September 2021, Moeen Ali was able to attend the funeral of his Test career. The epitaphs were fulsome, but interspersed with an immovable sense of missed opportunity. There goes a great servant, never quite been allowed to become master. With both bat and ball, it had been sparklingly spectacular at its best and catastrophically chaotic at its worst. To paraphrase an often-quoted tomb inscription, from Moeen to Moeen, there was none like unto Moeen.
It initially appeared Bazball had struck too late for this most Bazball of players. He was gone, done, making his millions bowling two overs per game and smashing middling spinners into the stands on multiple continents. The Ashes had also always been a Test arena he struggled in.
His retirement came conspicuously close to the 2021 tour of Australia, where he will forever average 115 with the ball and 19.88 with the bat courtesy of that ill-fated near-whitewash in 2017-18. Chasing that Urn had done lasting psychological damage to the Birmingham boy.
Not that you could tell from the outside. That’s the secret Moeen doesn’t want you to know – he’s not really calm, you just don’t get to know what he’s thinking. It’s not so much serenity as a concrete mask of self-protection. We know he has suffered maybe more than his fair share of confidence crises, that he is in fact an incredibly sensitive soul, but he believes his feelings are his issue alone.
Perhaps this faux tranquillity has been a defence mechanism borne of his heritage. Throughout his Test career, Moeen has had to represent not just himself, or his teammates, or his nation, but the entire British South Asian cricketing community.
As he said recently, “the South Asian player has to be almost outstanding most of the time, whereas sometimes a white player doesn’t have to be outstanding.”
The privilege to show emotion may not be one he believed he could afford. If he did something wrong, he would not allow it to be attributed to Moeen the man, only Moeen the cricketer. He has not always worn the “role model” moniker comfortably, but he believed owed it to the 195,000 Pakistanis in Birmingham and the thousands more elsewhere to not show weakness, to blend into the shadows, not to allow anything other than cricketing ability to define His Big Shot.
Which brings us to the Oval, on an overcast Thursday nearly two years after his first cricketing funeral. “Ashes?” “Lol” has already become legend enough that it does not need retelling, but what came next deserves greater praise.
At Edgbaston, that first red-ball international in nearly two years, Moeen Ali reached 200 Test wickets, while 3000 runs came in his sublimely measured Old Trafford 54. He is just the third English spinner, behind Derek Underwood and Graeme Swann, to reach that milestone. He is only the fourth English all-rounder to manage both tallies, 16th of any nationality. At Headingley, he offered himself as tribute at No 3. By Manchester, he had made the role his own.
It was at first change he began what may be his final significant knock of his second Test life, 34 from 47 balls, an innings of two distinct halves, Before and After groin. As he laid across the Oval greenswain deciding if he had it in him to outlast the count once more, he made a decision. If this was it, he was going out as he came in: on his own terms. He is fighter dressed as lover, and it was time to fight.
His first six off Pat Cummins was pure Moeen, essence of Moeen, one last Mo-ment. It was utterly understated yet dangerous, destructive, a deadly weapon of poisonous proportions. The second, a tapped ramp over his head, was blessed by a similar deft class. If this was the death rattle of Test Mo, it was rattling Australia hard.
In four final matches, Moeen has offered far more fitting fuel to fire his second Test cricketing legacy. He has answered the question of how he would fare under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes as everyone hoped and tied off the statistical loose ends which ensure he will be remembered in the company he warrants.
He will leave Test cricket for a second time having sacrificed his self for his country, colleagues and heritage, but this time perhaps with greater recognition and appreciation. Every British South Asian Test cricketer of the next generation will undoubtedly cite Moeen as a defining inspiration. He sat through his first funeral and didn’t like the speeches, so he found the strength to live again until he did.