December 17, 2016 12:33:43 am
IF ONLY KL Rahul had timed his jump better rather than extend his hands in the air hurriedly like he was grabbing for the railings in a bus that had braked suddenly. Or if somehow he had managed to clasp the ball in his grasp and not let it burst through them. England would have been reduced to 21/3. For the third Test in a row, they would have won the toss and made a hash of it. And Moeen Ali would have been dismissed for zero.
With the Indian spinners already into their elements, it is unlikely England would have recovered. Ali’s batting average in the series, meanwhile, would have slumped to 23.87. With only 9 wickets at 51 apiece, he’s already had a rather miserable tour with the ball. But another failure with the bat—he did get a century in the first innings of the series in Rajkot—would have made his Indian sojourn not only rather forgettable but also probably left him looking like the biggest villain-of-the-piece in England’s disastrous campaign.
Ali had after all come into the series as the leader of his team’s spin attack. It’s the premier spinner on whose shoulders rested the onus of shepherding a visiting team’s hopes and aspirations. It’s safe to say the off-spinner has already let England down rather disastrously on that front by neither taking too many wickets nor building any pressure on the batsmen. But with his team in trouble once more, Ali now had all but thrown away an opportunity for redemption by playing a nonchalant flick off Ravindra Jadeja. But Rahul wasn’t alert enough to make the left-hander pay for it.
Ali didn’t just make the most of the reprieve but took full toll by notching up his fifth Test ton, second of the series, to salvage the day both for himself and his team. He remained unbeaten on 120 at the end of the day’s play, helping England reach a very respectable 282/4 with Ben Stokes batting at the other end.
But it could have gone all wrong on so many occasions. Ali’s second life wasn’t short of testing moments or perilous escapes.There were leading edges and outside-edges. And on five separate occasions before he reached double-figures, he gingerly held his bat and watched Ashwin spin circles round his bat. There were close lbw shouts off Jadeja at the other end and on one occasion even the otherwise off-colour Amit Mishra, who came in for the injured Jayant Yadav, had Ali in trouble.
The Chepauk pitch had a some moisture in the first session. So the balls weren’t only stopping at the batsmen but also gripping and providing generous turn to spinners. There were a few more close shaves for Ali and by the time he had reached 31, he had played and missed at deliveries on 9 occasions. But already, Ali had also timed 9 shots and got runs off them.
Bit of a cavalier
There’s a bit of the cavalier in the way Ali goes about his batting. And it comes through vividly in the flow of his bat. The way a batsman plays the ‘drive’ always tends to give away a lot about his character at the crease. While the technicians like leaning and transferring their body weight into the shot, you’ll find the more conservative ones preferring to punch rather than commit fully to the stroke. Ali doesn’t hold back.
There’s a touch of languidness about him, and also one that shows no restraint. When he plays the drive, the arc of his bat starts from the top of his left shoulder and finishes on top of the right. There’s no holding back. There are no doubts or inhibitions.
And once he had settled down eventually, Ali dished out a number of those drives. They came in all directions. There were the lofted drives off Mishra over the straight field and mid-wicket and a languid cover-drive against the turn off the leg-spinner. There were a couple of airy shots off Ashwin and a few more cover-drives with the spin. The pitch was easing up too by now with the moisture all dried up under the hot Chennai sun with the sea breeze playing its role.
The driving only got a lot more fluent and unencumbered once Ali reached his century. He welcomed the second new-ball with two thundering drives off Ishant Sharma, who on his return had till then given nothing away and somehow managed to move the ball despite the tackiness on the pitch.
Ali was regarded as one of the best batsmen against spin. But he’s struggled equally against both pace and spin since his opening Test century. It was a pitch where getting to the pitch of the ball was of paramount importance, and Ali did that to great effect. He also wasn’t shy off using his feet, and he did so wonderfully to put off the Indian spinners.
His best shot of the day took him from 95 to one short of a century as Ashwin gave the ball slightly more air, drawing Ali out of his crease. He sashayed out of his crease, and sent the ball racing towards the cover fence. Next ball, he was pushing a single to the off-side to become only the fifth English batsman to score two centuries in a series on Indian soil.
It can’t be easy being Moeen Ali. Not only does he have to constantly adjust to being shuffled around the batting order, he also has the responsibility of being his team’s major spin hope without really having signed up for it in many ways. Whether he’s always delivered or not, what you can’t doubt Ali is that he’s never shied away from a new challenge. No.4 is where he’s batted for most of his first-class career at Worcestershire. And three of his previous centuries had all come from No.8, with some referring to him as probably the most gifted batsman to play at that position.
This might be a series that might have exposed his calibre with ball in hand and raised questions over his spot in the team as far as his batting goes. But it doesn’t mean he’s let his guard down. Ali was spotted having an extremely cricket-centric discussion that lasted close to two hours in the company of Adil Rashid on fourth day of the Mumbai Test. Sitting in a plush café on Marine Drive overlooking the Arabian Sea and unbeknownst to all the staring eyes, the two Pakistan-origin spinners were busy shadow practising shots and discussing various deliveries. And it looks like it paid off for Ali, at least with bat in hand.
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