Ben Stokes' England return balances the team, says Moeen Ali

Scyld Berry
The Telegraph
Moeen Ali is delighted to Ben Stokes back in the fold - Getty Images AsiaPac
Moeen Ali is delighted to Ben Stokes back in the fold - Getty Images AsiaPac

Ben Stokes’s return to Test cricket will be welcomed by Moeen Ali more than most. There could hardly be a better 50th Test award for Worcestershire’s allrounder, indeed, than the return of Durham’s allrounder.

“He’s always great for the team,” Moeen said of Stokes, who is trying to prove his bowling fitness before the first Test starts on Thursday afternoon in Auckland but is expected to play even if he cannot bowl. “The balance of the team is pretty much sorted when he’s in the team.”

“It’s just having him in the side, knowing we’ve got a much stronger side when he’s playing,” Moeen added. “It gives everyone else a good lift, and obviously him being at slip for me, he’s very good in that position.” Stokes did slip-fielding practice on Saturday in Hamilton as designed for a spinner bowling, with head coach Trevor Bayliss snicking the catches and assistant coach Paul Farbrace getting thin edges to simulate the ball flicking off the keeper’s gloves - and Stokes, such are his reactions, still caught everything.

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“And he’s great to have just to talk to about bowling, and when I’m bowling he gives me quite a lot of advice and whatever I need,” Moeen went on. “Like I said he’s great to have in the team and I’m sure, and I know, he’s ready to go and ready to perform and give back to the team, which I’m sure he wants to do for what happened earlier.” A phrase worthy of a diplomat.

So motivated and valuable is Stokes that he is certain to play if only as a specialist batsman, with James Vince making way. But Stokes has until Thursday afternoon - the start of New Zealand’s first day-night Test at home - to build up his back so he can bowl a few overs. And once Stokes gets a ball in his hand, and if that ball is swinging as the pink one is expected to, the spell tends to become a long one.

<span>Moeen was troubled by a finger injury during the Ashes</span> <span>Credit: AP </span>
Moeen was troubled by a finger injury during the Ashes Credit: AP

Stokes, Moeen and Jonny Bairstow: only the third of England’s three world-class allrounders performed in the last Ashes, because Moeen was troubled by his spinning finger and Stokes was otherwise engaged, but they are reunited now. “The finger’s fine - it’s not like it was in Australia,” said Moeen, adding that his inability to throw at present, owing to a shoulder problem, does not affect his bowling.

New Zealand do not have a world-class allrounder or anything like. Mitchell Santner is a fine cricketer but he has been ruled out for the best part of a year with a stress fracture. They have two top batsmen in the captain Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, supported by the lefthanded opener Tom Latham, and three fine pace bowlers in Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner, but not much else - as their dogged wicketkeeper-batsman B-J Watling is only just coming back after a long injury.

<span>Moeen bowls during a warm-up match in Hamilton this week</span> <span>Credit: Getty images </span>
Moeen bowls during a warm-up match in Hamilton this week Credit: Getty images

So Moeen might be over-respectful when he says: “I think it’s going to be quite a tight series. I think they’ve got a very good side and some world-class players who are in good form and some very good bowlers as well. I think the difference will be how low we bat - our tail, with (Chris) Woakesy probably going to be number nine now, we bat all the way down.”

As for his own landmark, Moeen, thought there was “no way” he would reach it. “I never ever thought I was going to play that many games. When I got 25, I thought 50 seemed like a long way and I’ve been fortunate as well but it’s been great to be part of the set-up and to play my 50th game hopefully this week will be an amazing feeling for myself.”

Being only 30, Moeen should have several years of improvement as a spinner ahead, especially if he is somehow able to get away from the limelight and bowl lots of red-ball overs, which he could never do in his apprenticeship at Worcestershire. His Test batting and bowling averages of 32 and 40 could yet be turned around. That would be some goal to achieve by his 100th Test.

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