Eighteen months since playing his last Test, Moeen Ali feels he has so much more to achieve, including passing the 200-wicket milestone.
Back in Chennai, where he scored the last of his five Test centuries with 146 in England’s innings defeat as India won their series 4-0 in 2016, Moeen said that a sense of unfinished business with the red ball was now a driving force.
“That is my biggest motivation really,” said Moeen, who has 181 Test wickets. “I still feel I’ve got wickets and runs in me and match-winning performances within me. I have little targets I want to achieve first. I am not too far away from getting 200 wickets. I know people say they don’t look at these things but it would be something I would look at. Then I would set another target after that.”
So much has happened since Moeen was dropped after one Test in the 2019 Ashes. Some of it he would have imagined when it sparked his decision to take an extended break from the long-form game, some of it he never would have seen coming, like becoming infected with Covid-19 and spending 13 days in isolation in Sri Lanka, watching England win both Tests from the sidelines.
But perhaps what he did envisage, if opting out was to have the desired effect, was returning with no regrets and a renewed appetite for Test cricket.
“At the time I felt I needed it,” Moeen said via Zoom. “I wanted to see if I missed it and if I yearned to play it again. At the time I was playing so much cricket – and I’d been dropped – I thought it was a chance to take a step back. And I enjoyed it, played a few leagues around the world – but ultimately it was Test cricket that I missed and I felt like I could still do quite well in.
“The one thing I did learn is that when you’re playing Test cricket, you’re on top of your game in terms of your batting and bowling, your technique. I don’t think it’s great when you’re just playing white-ball, red-ball is very important for staying on top of your game.”
Moeen emerged from isolation midway through England’s first Test in Sri Lanka and, after an initial period of easing back into physical activity under close monitoring, he has returned to full training. According to Chris Silverwood, England’s head coach, he is under consideration to earn a recall for the first Test against India, starting on Friday.
Dom Bess and Jack Leach, England’s spinners in Sri Lanka, both claimed five-wicket hauls in the first Test without bowling at their best and took four wickets apiece in the second Test after going wicketless in the first innings. Moeen believed he would have completed a three-pronged spin attack in Sri Lanka had he not fallen ill and he has declared himself ready to go if called upon in India.
“I think I’m fine,” said Moeen. “Whether or not I get picked is another matter. Bessy and Leachy I thought did quite well in Sri Lanka and are coming off some good performances. In terms of being ready to play, I think I’ll be fine to play, I’ll be ready. I’ve waited long enough.”
During his long wait, Moeen has spent time on his batting and, having scored another century on that 2016 tour of India with a Player-of-the-Match performance in the drawn first Test, he has some fond memories to reprise.
“I’ve been working hard with the guys in Sri Lanka and prior to that I was training quite a bit to improve my batting and tweak a few things technically,” he said. “It is usually a good wicket to bat and bowl on, even though they got 700 last time. I feel quite good and I’m just ready to go out and perform.”
Returning for India will be Virat Kohli, their captain and Moeen’s IPL team-mate at Royal Challengers Bangalore, who missed the last three Tests of India’s triumphant tour of Australia.
“How do we get him out? He’s obviously an amazing player, world class, he’s very motivated to do well and I’m sure he’ll be even more motivated after they did well in Australia and he had to leave for the birth of his child,” Moeen said. “I don’t know how we’re going to get him out [specifically] because I don’t think he has any sort of weakness but we have a good bowling attack, some pace in the line-up.
“He’s a great guy and a good friend of mine – we don’t talk too much about cricket. We do a little bit but not too much.”
Moeen would have been scheduled to be rested for part of the India series under the ECB’s policy of resting multi-format players over the winter. Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes missed the Sri Lanka leg of their Asian tour and Jonny Bairstow, Mark Wood and Sam Curran will miss the first two India Tests, with Jos Buttler heading home after the first Test. Talks are ongoing between Moeen and team management about whether he will be rested at some stage during the India tour, given the length of time he will have spent away from home and the fact that he missed the Sri Lanka series through illness.
” I’ve been speaking to the selectors and the coaches,” Moeen said. “They’ve picked the squad for the first two games and it all depends where I’m at really. I think I’m due to go home at some stage during the 3rd and 4th (Tests) but we’re not 100 percent sure yet. If I’m playing and doing well, then things could change.
“It has felt like a long tour already so far but once you start playing and things gets better and you’re in a better frame of mind then we’ll see. At the moment I’m here for the first two games and depending on how things go, there’s a chance I’ll be going home after that.”
Archer, Stokes and Rory Burns arrived in India while England were still in Sri Lanka and so were the first to complete their stints in quarantine, training outdoors together for the first time on Saturday.
Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo