“It’s an absolute honour to captain your country” said Moeen Ali at the toss, standing in for Eoin Morgan. He had done the job before, in a tour game on the 2017-18 Ashes tour and when Morgan had picked up a knock against Ireland earlier this summer, but this was the real thing: an Australia encounter, with full responsibility.
In Moeen’s 2018 autobiography, he describes a team-bonding session before the 2015 Ashes in which players were asked to submit a fact about themselves anonymously, for team-mates to guess who it was about. He wrote “my grandmother’s name is Betty Cox” on the piece of paper he was given, and recalls the dumbfounded looks on the squad’s faces when he admitted it was him.
That sort of second-guessing has been a feature of his career. Not many England players have had to put up with hit pieces during their Test debut, after all. “You’re playing for England, Moeen Ali, not your religion,” blared one headline that week in June 2014.
Moeen has been booed on his home ground, unceremoniously dropped, and scrutinised more than any England player over the last six years. Last winter, he lost his red-ball central contract on the back of one bad game.
Perhaps it was fitting that Moeen should become the first Muslim, and the first British Asian, to captain England in a T20I. In that autobiography, one of the first innings he recounts in any detail is a score of 195 for Moseley Ashfield Under-15s in a T20 against Blossomfield, two years before the inaugural season of the Twenty20 Cup; it’s a format that has always suited his mentality of attacking a ball based on its merits, rather than how early it arrives in his innings.
But Moeen’s influence extends beyond what he does with bat and ball. When England played South Africa in Durban in February, Moeen, Adil Rashid and Saqib Mahmood went to the mosque together. “Those two have really helped me,” Mahmood said. “They gave me almost a big brother talk on that tour.
“They were saying: if you keep going the way you are, you’ll be a lot bigger than you think, especially in the Asian community. It’s nice to be able to go to the mosque on tour for Friday prayers with other guys. Everyone respects what each other does in this team.” That same night, Moeen hit 39 off 11 balls in a tight win.
Moeen’s Worcestershire team-mates rave about his captaincy. “You can see bits of Morgan in the way he leads,” Joe Leach, the club’s four-day captain, told The Cricketer magazine, in a feature on the county’s run to successive Blast finals under his leadership. “It’s just the belief everyone gets from him coming back,” purred Pat Brown. “Having him as a captain gives our team such a lift.”
The critics were out early in Moeen’s innings on Tuesday night: “He doesn’t like the short ball,” Shane Warne declared on Sky. Not an over later, he rocked back to a Josh Hazlewood bouncer, upper-cutting for a one-bounce four.
In the field, Moeen leant heavily on Morgan’s playbook: in fact, the pattern of bowlers he used almost exactly mirrored those used in the second T20I, with Chris Jordan’s use in the Powerplay ahead of Tom Curran being the only swap in the first half.
After Australia’s fast start, Moeen continued to hunt for wickets, knowing it was England’s only chance of getting back into the game. Slip stayed in throughout Rashid’s spell, and when Glenn Maxwell came in at No. 4, Moeen brought an extra fielder into the ring to apply the squeeze.
Moeen is a calm figure in the field. Many captains would have rolled their eyes or looked skywards in frustration at England’s sloppiness in the field; instead, he offered gentle words of encouragement, and led by example with a superb stop at short cover in the 10th over.
At the start of the 11th over, Moeen wandered over to Rashid to hatch a plan, setting another attacking field with a short midwicket and a short extra cover as well as the slip; within the next three overs, England had dropped two slip catches, and Rashid had taken three wickets.
Moeen brought himself on in the 14th over, with a leg slip in place. When Jofra Archer came back early to bowl the 15th, he brought a fifth man into the ring to stop Agar from scoring early on. But Mark Wood was wayward on his return, and from that point the game was Australia’s.
“We were pretty poor in the field,” he reflected. “You take those chances and we’d have won that game – we didn’t back the bowlers up as we would have liked. But it was an amazing experience.”
Moeen would not have captained tonight but for Morgan’s injury and Jos Buttler’s trip home. In fact, Ben Stokes might even have led ahead of him, had he been available; there is every chance that Moeen’s first game as skipper will be his last.
This has been a season that has seen the only Asian member of the ECB’s board leave his post, Yorkshire’s first British Asian captain reveal that “institutional racism” at the club left him on the brink of suicide, and fears raised that Covid will lead to a long-term drop-off in the South Asian participation in recreational cricket. The ECB hopes that its South Asian action plan will address some of those issues; time will tell if that proves to be the case.
So Moeen alone is not some kind of saviour; him leading a team out will not put those problems to bed, or spark institutional change. But tonight he captained England, and that will never be taken from him.
“When Morgs told me last night, I was over the moon,” he said. “I don’t feel proud a lot of the time, but that was one of my proudest moments. To lead my country out was amazing. I’ll never, ever forget it.”