Ashes: Australia need to crack Moeen Ali mystery to win series
Australia's fortunes in the Ashes series will depend a lot on whether they could avoid gifting their wickets away to part-timers like Moeen Ali. They have to recalibrate their approach to success
London: Top flight sportsmen get to do what they do for a living because in addition to their talent, skills and natural physical gifts, they have single-mindedly devoted themselves to a goal, to an ambition. They refuse to give in when faced with failure. They stick to their processes stubbornly. However, it is a fine line between stubborn bloody-mindedness and insanity. After all, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is, as Albert Einstein famously said, is insanity.
When India toured England in 2014, they had put together a plan that they would attack the new England offspinner Moeen Ali. MS Dhoni firmly believed that if they hit the offie out of the attack, Alastair Cook would be left with no choice but to bring his pacers on, which in the course of a long five Test series will add mileage on their weary legs. However, that plan went awry as in the process of attacking the non-threatening offspinner, India began gift-wrapping the wickets. Even as India fell behind 2-1 in the series after a three-day rout in Old Trafford, Dhoni was stubborn in his plan, and said he and his team would continue to attack Moeen every time he came on to bowl.
As it turned out, that was insanity. Moeen bagged 19 wickets at a strike rate of 39 and average of 23, tied second for the number of wickets in the series with Stuart Broad and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, and just a few behind Jimmy Anderson.
Moeen isn't just yet a top class offspinner as Graeme Swann was. He still provides enough opportunities for the batsmen to cash in, with odd full tosses and occasional drag-down deliveries. A shrewd team would understand that he is not as accurate as a Test quality spinner needs to be, and just milk him around for three or more runs an over without taking any undue risks.
As England were routing Australia last week in Cardiff, Moeen benefitted from the Australian batsmen following MS Dhoni's plan of attack, and walked away with 5 wickets. Steve Smith and Michael Clarke – the best Aussie batsmen equipped to counter spin - fell to Moeen trying to play “aggressive brand of cricket” that their team, and head coach Darren Lehmann swear by, without any consideration for match situation. They refused to tread the fine line between aggression and defense and paid dearly.
There is nothing wrong with being stubborn but it pays to be open minded as well. When the plan does backfire, the dexterity of mind and the humility to concede that the best laid plans do not always work, allows alternate pathways to success.
David Warner, as gifted a striker of the cricket ball as he is, is not associated with being the brightest of them all. On a flat Lord's pitch, after Clarke called correctly at the toss and decided to bat first, it was an invitation for the Aussie batsmen to erase the bad memories from last week and pile on the runs.
After some early restraint against Anderson and Broad, Warner began to open up hitting his trademark slaps through covers and pulling impudently. After looking all at sea against English seamers in Cardiff, here in London, Warner began to assert himself.
However, at the very first sight of Moeen in the 15th over of the innings, he decided to attack. After taking 10 runs off the first 5 deliveries including two boundaries, he could have held himself back but instead, he went after him again and managed to only to skewer the ball high in the air for Anderson to complete an easy catch. On a surface where batsmen needed to book in for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Warner brainfaded himself to an early exit.
Smith seems to have learned his lessons and was more keen on cutting down the risks and knocked Moeen around to get his runs. To prove the point further, Moeen did not look like taking another wicket and went at above 3 runs an over after Warner's dismissal. Even when part-timers Joe Root and Adam Lyth came on to send down a few, Smith and Chris Rogers refused to take the bait and were more content at the scoreboard ticking along by nudging away for runs, instead of running down the pitch to launch ambitious shots, as England went wicketless in the second session of the day.
Australia's fortunes in the series will depend a lot on whether they could avoid gifting their wickets away to Moeen and other part-timers and instead force the pacers that much more to earn the wickets.
More of them will have to follow Smith's recalibrated approach to success rather than Warner's highway to insanity.