In the 2179 test matches that have been played in the history of cricket there have been 1116 men who have batted at number 8. In the 6599 innings, only 78 hundreds have been scored from that position with an overall average of 21.2 runs per innings.¹
Number 8 is an interesting batting position; one seemingly occupied by bowlers who are more than useful with the bat but who don’t usually make massive scores. Only 2 men have scored more than 2000 runs there, Shane Warne and Daniel Vettori. Vettori scored his runs at a much better average, 39.76 compared to 19.09 with 4 centuries compared to Warne’s 0. In this Ashes series, Moeen Ali spent almost the whole summer walking in to bat at 8. If he did that for 14 years, like Vettori did, he would have a lot more runs than 2000. This summer, in the 6 innings he spent at 8 during the Ashes he scored 220 runs at 36.66 per innings. The prognosis? He is too good to bat so low down.
The number 8 batter is one expected to move up and down the order, and not just depending on night watchmen. Vettori batted everywhere from 3 – 11, MS Dhoni from 3 – 8, Shaun Pollock 4 – 9, even Chaminda Vaas batted from 3 – 10. While all except Dhoni spent most of their career at 8, clearly whoever bats at 8 is expected to be flexible. Moeen Ali is probably the most flexible of the lot. In his short 18 test career, he’s batted at 6, 7, 8 and 9 and it would be quite conceivable to see him bat anywhere in the top 5. Indeed, he has opened for England in ODI’s and bats at 3 for Worcestershire in the County Championship.²
Adding in his innings at 9 when England used a night watchman, this series saw Moeen Ali score 293 runs at an average of 36.62. From the same amount of innings, Adam Lyth scored 115 runs with an average of 12.77. It wouldn’t take a maths genius to work out which one had a better series with the bat! Yes, it’s potentially easier to bat at 8 than open however you are still likely to be facing a new ball with the added pressure of having to score quickly else risk running out of partners.
England travel to the UAE this winter to play Pakistan. We’ve only ever played in the UAE once, a 3-0 loss to Pakistan. The series was an absolute embarrassment. Only one batter averaged more than 30 (Prior) and only three bowlers took more than 10 wickets (Panesar, Broad and Swann). Spin is going to play a key role and we can’t afford to only play one spinner like we have been doing for the past couple of years. As that spinner is Moeen Ali, his performances in the UAE are going to be crucial to our success. As important as he is, he needs support in the spin department and therefore we probably can’t afford to bat him at 8!
England would have known this going into the final test match at the Oval. The people in the dressing room would have known we needed an extra spinner in the UAE, they would have known that our second choice spinner at the moment is yet to play a test for England and they would have known that the Ashes were already won. For those three reasons, plus the stats from a couple of paragraph back, it is baffling that they decided to stick with the same side. Rashid needed to play, therefore we needed to drop someone with the obvious choice being Lyth and hence give Moeen Ali a go at the top of the order.
Since Strauss retired, we’ve tried Compton, Root, Robson, Trott and Lyth as openers with all, except Trott, scoring a century but none having major success. Alex Hales is next in line however it would be unbelievably harsh to throw him in either at the end of an Ashes series or the start of one in a place we are hardly likely to succeed in. Therefore, the opener needs to be someone who can bat there but more importantly is already in the side and who won’t be dropped if they have a bad series, although they can’t be un-droppable. It’s very rare that a test side will ever have a solution to such a problem, it’s even rarer that the solution would be a man who ticks a further all-rounder box and even rarer that he would be exactly the bowler needed in those conditions. It’s a no-brainer – Moeen Ali has to open in the UAE and therefore had to open at the Oval.
There are 3 tests in the UAE, if Moeen isn’t working after 2 then his versatility comes in handy as he can drop down the order, possibly back to 8, which allows England to give Hales a debut. If he is working then England will have managed to accommodate Cook, Bell, Root, Stokes, Bairstow/Ballance, Buttler and Moeen – their first choice batting line up as well as having an extra spinner while keeping Finn/Wood, Anderson and Broad. There is then even an option to include a third spinner or an extra batsman. Opening with Moeen opens up multiple possibilities further down the order.
Furthermore, these tests are likely to define whether Moeen will have a long test career or if he’s just a plugging a hole until a better spinner/batter/all-rounder comes along. Moeen’s big advantage over almost every other English spinner is that he can bat. He needs a chance to showcase both his talents, rather than be used as bit part bowler and a pinch hitting batsman. He is aggressive by nature however that doesn’t mean he can’t play long and rewarding innings. The selectors need to show the confidence in him to open, knowing that if it comes off we could have solved a batting dilemma and at the same time opened a spot up down in the order. If it doesn’t then it’s only 3 tests in the strangest of environments for English batters and we won’t have lost anything. Moeen is too good a batsman to play at 8; this is the perfect opportunity to prove it.
Moeen Ali had a wonderful summer batting at number 8, where his main role was to inject pace and power into our lower order. At Edgbaston, his quick fire 59 turned our lead into a substantial enough one for England to take a 2-1 lead in the series whereas it was his bowling in Cardiff that provided the springboard England needed for success. He can excel in either aspect of the game and now he’s established in the test XI, he needs a series to prove it. There is no more perfect an opportunity than heading out to the UAE where his spin is going to be critical. As I’ve explored above, England also need to give him more responsibility with the bat – the potential rewards are certainly worth the risk. I, like the England selectors, like Moeen Ali. We all want him to succeed; this winter is his chance to prove that he can.
¹ Those stats include the Sri Lanka v India match that started on the 28th August and was scheduled to finish on the 1st September 2015 but no matches afterwards.
² As a side note, Worcestershire have confirmed they are willing to let Moeen open to let England decide whether he can do it in First Class cricket.