London: “I do get switched around a lot and play in a lot of positions. It is something I enjoy but it does work against you,” Phil Neville said during his football career. Being able to play at left-back, right-back or in central midfield made Neville a wonderful asset to managers. It was surely also an impediment to reaching his full potential as a sportsman.
Cricketers are a pernickety bunch, prone to tiffs about whether they are moved up a place higher or lower in the batting order. Mo’en Ali is different. And because he is so unperturbed by it all, and somehow manages to maintain the spirit of back-garden cricket in the most elevated grounds in the world, he is always the easiest to move around.
Mo’en’s flexibility, equanimity and selflessness have been a huge asset to his team, but also a curse on himself. Over 52 Tests, Mo’en has gyrated between positions like a Strictly Come Dancing contestant, batting everywhere from one to nine. Whether it is opening in the UAE, batting at four in India or eight at home, shuffling Mo’en around has been the path of least resistance.
Yet, the paradox is that Mo’en has never been empowered to bat for England in his favoured position for Worcestershire: No 3. There, he averages 55.18 with seven centuries, a record far superior to some custodians of No. 3 in recent years, such as James Vince and Tom Westley.
The reasons for England’s reluctance to elevate Mo’en to three - the airy driving; the propensity to flash outside off stump - are obvious. But when Joe Root decided, midway through the critical Test at Southampton, that his team were best-served by him batting at four, so England sent for Mo. No one else would uncomplainingly be elevated four positions mid-Test. So everyone else moved back a place in the order: it suited them better but Mo’en worse. He only made nine - but England won.
The Oval was the first time that Mo’en has ever been listed to bat at three in a Test - and batted there because of a pre-match plan, rather than a mid-game change. It witnessed Mo’en’s newest and most unlikely iteration: as a No. 3 who played so assiduously that his teammates took to calling him Geoffrey Boycott.
This was a bizarre innings, which somehow managed to combine self-restraint with outrageous luck. This was comfortably Mo’en’s slowest half-century in Test or even first-class cricket - it took 167 balls - and probably his most fortuitous too. His propensity to flash outside off stump led to a dropped catch - at third slip by Virat Kohli when he had only made two - and 35 false shots.
But when Mo’en tucked an efficient clip away for one to bring up his half-century, most of the Oval was united in standing to applaud this innings. They recognised that, for all his struggles, Mo’en had played with great diligence to suppress his natural intent. The collapse that followed only accentuated the value of Mo’en’s innings.
No. 7 - where he averages 44.90 - may well be Mo’en’s best position in Test cricket. But the needs of the team - again - preclude him from getting an extended run there. Instead, he may well now get the series in Sri Lanka at three: given his aptitude against spin - and series-clinching haul of nine wickets during his recall in Southampton - Mo’en batting there would balance the side ideally.
Mo’en has never disguised that he is a cricketer of limitations. But it is a rare cricketer who scores five Test centuries and takes five five-fors. And so if Mo’en’s was a flawed 50, it was also a worthy addition to the compendium of his contributions unified by putting team before self.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018