Despite Virat Kohli dismissal, Moeen Ali's Test return falls flat

Scyld Berry
·5-min read
Virat Kohli(Captain) of India bowled by Moeen Ali of England during day one of the second PayTM test match between India and England held at the Chidambaram Stadium stadium in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India on the 13th February 2021.  - Saikat Das/ Sportzpics for BCCI
Virat Kohli(Captain) of India bowled by Moeen Ali of England during day one of the second PayTM test match between India and England held at the Chidambaram Stadium stadium in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India on the 13th February 2021. - Saikat Das/ Sportzpics for BCCI

Stunned. Thunderstruck. When India’s king Virat Kohli was bowled for a duck by Moeen Ali, he resembled an emperor about to address his people, only to find his trousers had fallen down.

When Sir Donald Bradman made a duck in his final Test, he simply tucked his bat under his arm and walked off at the Oval in 1948. Eric Hollies had clean-bowled him with a googly, and that was that.

If Dr WG Grace had been batting in Kohli’s place in Chennai, he would have replaced the bails and, with a threatening glower at the umpire, observed that it was a very windy day then carried on batting. Kohli did not try that old trick but he appeared to borrow another line from WG, even if he uttered it silently to himself: “They have come to watch me bat, not you bowl.”

Which was probably true. The 9,000 spectators would have come to the Chepauk stadium with the primary purpose of seeing King Kohli make a royal response to India’s defeat in the first Test. Rohit Sharma went on to make a century that was almost as regal, but for Kohli to be overthrown by his fifth ball without scoring: the Tamil film industry in Chennai is almost as vibrant as Bollywood but a Kohli duck cannot have been in any script.

WG would have used one of his side’s DRS reviews. Kohli seemed inclined to use all three of them as he stood there in disbelief. But the auditory evidence was overwhelming. The sound of ball on wood ensued immediately after Kohli had missed his drive: a rash, high-risk, even arrogant shot for any new batsman to try on a turning pitch, if any courtier could have been found to tell him so.

It was Kohli’s 11th duck in all Test cricket and his sixth in India, so the event was not too uncommon. It was his reaction that was. The temerity of an offbreak to bowl him through the gate, and for an England offspinner of all people to do it!

Virat Kohli(Captain) of India walks back during day one of the second PayTM test match between India and England held at the Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India on the 13th February 2021.  - Pankaj Nangia/ Sportzpics for BCCI.
Virat Kohli(Captain) of India walks back during day one of the second PayTM test match between India and England held at the Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India on the 13th February 2021. - Pankaj Nangia/ Sportzpics for BCCI.

Moeen’s day naturally went downhill from there, as he was no more able than Dom Bess to exert the control that a captain craves. All too soon England were into the nightmare scenario which they had averted in Chennai: an old, soft ball in the heat of the day against two well-set Indian strokemakers finding every gap in the field and scoring too quickly. But Moeen has always been an aggressive, wicket-taking offspinner with an excellent strike-rate of one wicket every ten overs, not a defensive, containing successor to Fred Titmus, Ray Illingworth and John Emburey.

It is both a very simple and very difficult matter of bowling six balls an over in the right place, not four or even five. England’s spin-bowling coach, and the former Warwickshire captain, Jeetan Patel has been giving master-classes at Edgbaston for the last decade: every ball a bit outside offstump, never too full to be driven, never too short to cut. And with a bit of luck Joe Root is not the batsman, ever ready to reverse-sweep. India, at least, spared Moeen that ill-treatment.

In the process of letting the game slip from 86 for three, after Kohli’s dethronement, a key moment was when Moeen offered Ajinkya Rahane a full toss first ball to get off the mark. Rahane had got himself out in the first Test, by running down the pitch and making a Bess offbreak into a low full toss, but this was “a gimme”: the sort of erratic delivery that someone who has not bowled with a red ball in a competitive game since September 2019 is bound to dish up.

England were over-optimistic too. They might have been led to believe that Rohit Sharma is not a good sweeper. After his first attempt, when his bat was not horizontal, he kept nailing his sweeps, and England had no boundary fielder - no deep square-leg - for the first half of his 161. England hoped for a top-edged sweep to short fine-leg but it never happened.

Moeen should not have been asked to bowl so many as 26 overs. Olly Stone made a fine contribution for a speed merchant on a slow turner in his second Test, and Jack Leach was steady as usual. But Stuart Broad could not lead the attack and find the reverse-swing as James Anderson had, the ball not scuffing up nearly so much as in the first Test; and Ben Stokes, supposedly the fifth bowler, could manage only two overs, one for each injured knee.

To be hit for four by one of India’s brilliant strokemakers visibly hurts Bess and Leach: so much so that Bess had to be withdrawn from the firing line for this game. Moeen, older at 33, reacts philosophically and rubs his right hand in the dust. He accepts the lows as he accepts the highest of highs like clean-bowling Kohli with a pearler.

England’s seventh away victory in a row now looks impossible on a pitch which has powdered at each end, if not yet in the middle. But Mo, for a mo, was in seventh heaven.