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24 February 2021updated 29 Jul 2021 8:48am

Moeen Ali’s journey to the margins shows English cricket still struggles with difference

A subtle sense of "otherness" has always followed the international career of a multi-talented cricketer who remains strangely under-appreciated.

By Jonathan Liew

On 16 February, after playing in the defeat in the second Test at Chennai, Moeen Ali flew home from the England cricket team’s tour of India. His captain Joe Root announced Moeen had “chosen” to return to the UK. In truth, it was a scheduled rest in keeping with the team’s squad rotation policy, arranged by the management and agreed well in advance. Several other players had been assigned similar breaks from touring life and its punishing quarantine regime. Only Moeen’s departure was presented to the world as his own decision.

The statement was quickly seized upon by elements of England’s fan base as evidence of Moeen’s indolence, cowardice and treachery. By all accounts Root was horrified when he learned of the controversy his words had inadvertently generated, and immediately contacted Moeen to apologise. But the whole episode betrayed the same institutional lack of empathy with which many British Muslims will be instinctively familiar.

It all began in 2014, when a talented young cricketer from Birmingham was selected for the England team for the first time, and greeted with a fittingly warm English welcome. The news of Moeen Ali’s call-up was announced on BBC Sport’s Facebook page, to a dispiriting if predictable chorus. “Nasty facial hair,” one user wrote of Moeen, who as a devout Muslim has had a long beard since his late teens. “How about England actually produce their own players?” asked another. “Osama bin Laden” and “Borat” were other common reactions.

[See also: Crisis is engulfing the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games – but does the world still need the Olympics?]

“Osama” was also the insult Moeen received from an Australian opponent at the 2015 Ashes. During the return series a couple of years later, an Australian spectator asked him what time his kebab shop opened. During a home match against India, he was singled out for booing by British Indian fans. The reason for dredging all this up again is to underline that from the moment he began playing international cricket, Moeen has been constantly reminded – in various insidious ways – that he is not the same as everyone else.

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Now 33, Moeen is no longer the Test team’s first-choice spinner and may well have played his last Test match. Although he continues to merit selection in the shorter formats (ODIs and Twenty20) and has won a lucrative Indian Premier League contract, it feels like the beginning of the end for a cricketer who, for all his talent, achievements and cultural significance, remains curiously under appreciated by fans, pundits and occasionally even his own side.

Moeen’s gifts have never been in doubt. A batsman capable of blocking for six hours to save a Test match or thrashing for an hour to change it completely; a bowler who since his debut has taken almost as many international wickets (291) as James Anderson (292) or Stuart Broad (296), both of whose legendary status is already assured. There is an Ashes win on his CV, the World Cup triumph in 2019, a Test hat-trick and numerous match-winning performances. And this is before we even begin to address Moeen’s status as one of the UK’s best-known Muslim athletes: an exemplary role model and an emblem of multiculturalism and harmony in a country where these values are under siege.

To summarise Moeen’s treatment over the past few years as outright racism somehow simplifies and flattens what has involved a more complex swirl of impulses. Racism is certainly a factor, but we might more accurately describe it as “apartness”: the subtle, often imperceptible sense that he is held to a different standard than his colleagues in England’s majority-white, majority-privately educated Test team.

[See also: Why a group of champion cricketers from poor families are emblems of the new Indian future]

Often, this double standard is explicit, such as when Moeen was subjected to virulent social media abuse after being photographed in his England suit not wearing a poppy (it had fallen off). There was the interview with the Daily Mail in which the journalist described him as “the friendly face of that Taliban beard”. There was the time the former England captain Michael Vaughan suggested in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombings in 2017 that Moeen needed to help root out potential Islamist extremists in his community.

But most of the time, it’s slighter than that and unthinking – as with Root’s misleading comment about Moeen’s departure from the tour. Perhaps it stems from this same idea of apartness, the sense that the commitment and loyalty of certain players is always somehow open to suspicion, never simply assumed. Moeen himself has long suspected that he is “one of the first guys to get the blame” when England lose.

Over the past year, like many other sports jolted into self-reflection by the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, English cricket has been grappling with its latent structural racism problem. Ex-players and umpires have begun to speak out about the hostile environment and often outright discrimination they faced in the game. British Asians are estimated to constitute a third of recreational cricketers in England, but only 6 per cent of its professional players. And though the current England team prides itself on being a diverse meritocracy, on tour it is common (or was, in the pre-Covid era) to see the few non-white players socialising in a separate group. That sense of otherness again: subtle, unconscious, and yet deeply embedded.

Moeen deserves to be remembered as one of the most significant English cricketers of his generation. Instead, as the end of his career approaches, a player of 200 international caps still feels somehow marginal, inessential, disposable: neither unconditionally loved or unconditionally loathed, but problematised from the moment he set foot on the field. English cricket will argue that it did its best to make Moeen feel like he belonged. It still wasn’t good enough. 

[See also: Ramachandra Guha’s The Commonwealth of Cricket: a delightful sporting memoir]

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This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks