1st Test, Day 2: Spinner earns opponents’ respect after outwitting key batsmen
Cardiff has never been a spinner’s paddock. The pitch rarely takes turn and the straight boundaries are short and inviting. More than the odd tossed-up delivery is returned sopping-wet from the depths of the River Taff. This was where both Steve Smith and Michael Clarke imagined depositing Moeen Ali in mid-afternoon. Both finished up back in the pavilion.
On the first day Australia underestimated some of England’s batsmen. Yesterday they may have underestimated Moeen. They know he is fundamental to England’s bowling plans, trying to tie up one end while the quicks rotate from the other. They also know he bowled poorly in the Caribbean, not especially well against New Zealand and has had little opportunity since. Their intent was to damage his figures and destroy his confidence.
Certainly the way Smith assaulted Moeen’s fourth over suggested he was held in little regard. The first ball was pummelled back past the bowler for a straight boundary, the second fetched from outside off and thumped into the long on fence, and, after a man was put back to patrol that area, Smith skipped up the pitch to the fourth and creamed it over mid-off.
But Alastair Cook is learning to trust Moeen’s wicket-taking knack, and Moeen, with some decent test scalps in his pouch, is beginning to trust himself. When Smith was on strike to him again, and indulging in a premeditated cavalry charge up the pitch, Moeen bowled slower and straighter and Smith was obliged to twice check his shot. He did the same to the sixth ball of the over, advancing much too early, overbalanced as the ball was veering down the leg side and finished up poking the ball to a well positioned Cook at short mid-on. It was a dismissal suggesting that Moeen’s time playing with Saeed Ajmal at Worcester has not been wasted. It was a classic example of an off-spinner’s guile.
There was nothing in the surface for Moeen, and Clarke eased him through the covers for four, pulled another to the boundary and eyed up the untenanted space over the bowler’s head. Shrewdly, Cook kept his straight men in. Varying his pace and often sending the ball down with a scrambled seam – more trickery acquired from Ajmal – Moeen beckoned Clarke to come at him and he did. He left it later than Smith, but Moeen kept his line tight to the stumps, and Clarke got too close to a ball that was held back a touch. Instead of launching it over the sightscreen he could only hit a skimming drive which the bowler snaffled nonchalently. Spinners who can catch off their own bowling are invaluable.
‘Last year I tended to bowl the same ball over and over, now I am trying to mix it up a bit more,’ he said afterwards. So that’s Smith and Clarke to add to Kumar Sangakkara (twice), Virat Kohli, Shikhar Darwan, Rohit Sharma, MS Dhoni and Kane Williamson as fine players that Moeen has dismissed. Not bad for a part-time spinner. His batting ain’t bad either. The Australians won’t be underestimating him again.