The England team need to offer Moeen Ali more moral support if he is to handle the pressure of bowling them to victory in Bangladesh and India this winter.
That is the verdict of Graeme Swann who was England’s leading wicket-taker when they won their first Test series for 27 years in India in 2012. Swann and Monty Panesar outbowled India’s spinners as England came from behind to win 2-1.
Swann retired three years ago and Panesar struggled to retain his place in the Northants team in a disappointing comeback season this summer so neither will be in India this winter.
Moeen is the most experienced spinner in the squad in terms of international caps but the recall of 38-year-old Gareth Batty, picked along with Adil Rashid and Zafar Ansari, gives Alastair Cook a hardened professional to call on if his slow bowlers are overpowered by India and Bangladesh batsmen adept at playing spin.
Batty is 18 months older than Swann and if he plays in the first Test in Dhaka he will set a new world record for the longest gap between appearances. It is 141 Tests since Batty last played for England in 2005: his seven Tests included bowling at Brian Lara when he scored his world record 400 in Antigua and he lost his place at the start of the famous Ashes summer.
But it is this experience than Swann believes will help Batty cope with the pressure of having to deliver on turning tracks.
“Batts is combative. He is very much in your face and he uses that when he bowls as a major weapon,” said Swann. “I have a lot of time for him. He is a very good bowler. He will be pragmatic enough to handle it all. He knows what Test cricket is like because he has played in it and seen the worst of it in Brian Lara breaking a world record against him. He is probably relishing the chance to even it up a bit because he will be bowling on spinning wickets that are not the Rec in Antigua.
“It is handling the expectation from everyone else that is the hardest on spinning wickets. The press expect it, the TV go on about it and you see your face on the big screen all the time even when you are not bowling. You get hit for one four in an over and they focus on you for three and a half minutes and you think ‘what are they saying about me?’
“It is hard. But the key is don’t panic. I always remember what Shane Warne said: the more the wicket turns, the less you have to do as a bowler. It is less pressure. Just keep landing the ball in the same spot and something will change. That is what I used to do. When you go into the last day it is easy just to think about failing and letting people down. But sod it. Why not think instead of how happy everyone is going to be when you get a five-fer? Having an old hand who knows that already is a bit of a masterstroke.”
Moeen has worked a little with Swann but has largely learned on the job while playing Test cricket. It contrasts with Swann, who had almost a decade of bowling off-spin in county cricket before his Test debut so was hardened by the professional game before making the step up. It is Moeen’s lack of experience that Swann believes the current England team have to be better at recognising.
“Moeen is happier with a bat in his hand. That is natural because he is a batsman and as a bowler I just think he needs an arm around him all the time. He needs his tyres pumped up, and people telling him how good a bowler he is. He is a bloody good Test bowler when he believes he is. There were times this summer when I watched the England body language around Moeen and it was poor – at Edgbaston especially. He started the final day bowling and he had nobody near him putting their arm around him.
“He was not bowling well and was getting tonked a bit and the support was non-existent. Not purposefully: they are just blase and don’t realise what the spinner is going through at that point. Maybe it is because I played for so many years and did not like someone coming up to me.
“I saw it as a sign of weakness from myself. I just wanted to be angry with myself and fight my way through it. That is quite rare I think. I think the England team need to find a better way of helping their spinners through those situations because they will come in India where the likes of Kohli will go after them.
“Moeen’s bowling has plateaued now. His first year was his best for England. He was new, fresh and thought he was being lucky. The problem for Moeen is that at the end of that year everyone in authority said it would be harder next year now people have seen you. The first thing he said to me when I saw him in the West Indies that winter was: ‘I know it will be harder next year’.
“I had a former England spinner say that to me after my first year. He said: ‘I can’t believe how well you have done but, Christ, it gets hard from here, mate.’ I remember walking away thinking, why? The ball is the same size, the pitch is the same length, the same ball that got a wicket this year should get a wicket next year. Shane Warne bowled the same ball thousands of times: that did not stop people getting out to it 708 times in Test cricket. Moeen’s bowling dipped after his first year but it is slowly creeping up and the more people who tell him that the more belief he will have.”
England arrive in Bangladesh on Friday for three one-dayers and two Tests before heading straight to India for a five-Test series with no practice matches scheduled. The games in Bangladesh are warm-ups for the India series. Bangladesh have only won four Tests (all against Zimbabwe) of the 51 they have played at home.
“England have to win in Bangladesh. I know they have improved but if you are going to be taken seriously as a team away from home England have to win 2-0,” said Swann. “We lost a World Cup game there in 2011 which was a disgrace from our point of view. That was embarrassing. That is how it should be viewed.
“To win in India England have to watch videos over and over again of the last time we played them there and the ball was turning. Their batsmen were as hapless as we were against spin. If you outbowl their spinners you win the Test match. That is the lesson learned from the last tour.”
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