Moeen Ali works on the short ball after moving up England batting order
will be a vital player for England over the next two months but he has been unusually peripheral in the tour’s opening fortnight, laid low with the slightest of side strains. However, the all-rounder says he is now fit and ready to feature in England’s final warm-up game against a Cricket Australia XI on Wednesday, only eight days before the Test series starts at the Gabba, where his importance is magnified by the absence of Ben Stokes.
Jonny Bairstow, who has started the tour in fine form, and Moeen will move up a place in the batting order in the suspended Stokes’s absence in Townsville, and Moeen – who has long coveted a role in the top five – is not complaining. “Obviously I want him out here but also for myself it’s an opportunity to go up the order,” he said. “My whole thing is to try and get up the order as much as I can.”
England believe Moeen could have played the tour’s opening first-class match in Adelaide but rested him as a precaution, with the first Test in mind. He is now able to throw – the injury hindered this – and has netted comfortably for a week.
Moeen – speaking shortly after he and Alastair Cook had fed an 800kg, 4.5m crocodile called Bully a pair of chickens called Moeen and Alastair – knows Australia will target him just as ravenously and relentlessly.
When he bowls he expects to be attacked, immediately and brutally. Australia is a tough place to bowl finger-spin (although Nathan Lyon has fought fiercely to thrive), but Moeen believes he is a better bowler now than he was in his first Ashes series in 2015. He is inured to his bowling being under siege, and believes it improves his chances of taking wickets.
“They will definitely come after me,” he said. “It’s not anything new really. I’m looking forward to it and I think they’re going to come after a few of the guys. It’s that sort of Test series being the Ashes and I’ve had that many times before so I’m not too worried. If anything, you get more opportunity to do something better. If they come after you with the bat you always have a chance of getting wickets. We’ll see.”
He will be subject to hostility when he bats too, given a history of discomfort against the short ball. Accordingly, as England played in Adelaide, Moeen tried to go “over the top” with his net practices, making conditions as extreme as possible by improvising to help counter his perceived weakness. In the nets, Moeen places a reinforced, dense tray short of a length, soaks it with water, then gets the fielding coach, Paul Collingwood, to skim hardened balls off it from around 18 yards. It zips through, heightening pace and improving reactions. It has seen Moeen absorb some blows, too.
“I’ve been doing that recently to exaggerate the pace with the ball coming at you – it just sharpens you up,” said Moeen. “It’s a tray and you just wet it. It’s an Indian drill. I bring slightly different balls with me to do it, too. It skims off it. You need a good thrower, which Colly is. I’ve been hit before loads of times but the more I’m doing it the better I’m feeling.”
At times, Moeen has seemed a compulsive chaser of the short ball but he says he will judge it on its merit, and feels better equipped to deal with the short stuff than in the past. “It depends on how you feel, how you’re seeing the ball,” he says of whether he will take it on or not. “Some days I feel like I’m seeing it better. Some days I’m seeing it well but in the past I definitely didn’t have the technique to deal with it. But that’s something I’ve been working on.”
Townsville is something of a mystery to England. The pitch at the Tony Ireland Stadium (named after a local car dealer) is said to be quick and resembles the Gabba. But, so far, they have not encountered a quick pitch or a quick bowler apart from Nathan Coulter-Nile, who has since pulled up lame. The CA XI they will face is marginally different from the one in Adelaide but still offers no pace; Harry Conway, a New South Wales seamer, has replaced the injured left-armer Jackson Coleman, while Tim Paine, the only Test cricketer England have faced so far, has been recalled by Tasmania. He has been replaced by the wicketkeeper Harry Nielsen, son of Tim, the former Australia coach.
If England are struggling to replicate the environment they will face in Brisbane (even if Moeen is trying hard with his tray), Australia are battling to work out their XI. Into the third of three Sheffield Shield rounds that should decide three available slots in the Test team, cricketers are dodging, not demanding, selection.
Matt Renshaw, the 21-year-old Tees-side-born opening bat, continued a torrid run that has seen him go nine first‑class innings without a half-century, while the favourites to bat No6 and keep wicket, Glenn Maxwell and Matthew Wade respectively, also failed. One bright spot was Cameron Bancroft, the Western Australia opener who hardly shone at Gloucestershire but appears to be timing his run to perfection. He has 323 runs for once out in his past three innings (two of which came against Australia’s first‑choice attack last week) – and he is currently keeping wicket.