‘I don’t think anyone looks at me as a person with a beard now’

Moeen Ali is in a cheery mood a day before he plays his final game of the season for Royal Challengers Bangalore. The numbers may not tell the full story but this has been a good IPL campaign for him: a fifty and two for 18 in Mumbai, a 28-ball-66 and a nerveless final over in Kolkata, and a vital cameo with the bat against CSK. Moeen is not thrilled with his early departure from the IPL, as he and the rest of England’s World Cup-bound players head back home to prepare for the summer’s showpiece event, but he is pleased to have spent this last month in India. “It’s been amazing. I feel it’s the tournament that’s closest to international cricket,” he says.

Moeen has enjoyed playing under Virat Kohli at RCB. At Eden Gardens, the captain gushed about the former as a “game-changer”; Moeen is similarly unreserved in his praise for Kohli. There is much mutual respect and admiration there. “He’s second to none in leading from the front,” says the England all-rounder. “Like you see on TV, he’s passionate to win, he has that drive, he’s very motivated. He’s also a genuinely good guy, very friendly. I’m actually very impressed with the way he handles himself. He and his wife are obviously big superstars. The way they go about their daily life and their mindset in general is very impressive. Only a certain character can deal with that and the way they deal with it is amazing.”

Last year, it emerged that Moeen — by a distance the best footballer in the England Test squad — had taught Kohli how to perform the rainbow flick (where a player flicks the football forward, over his own head and then an opponent’s).

“We both enjoy football,” Moeen says with a laugh. “He’s a good player. When you have the same interests, it’s a lot easier. You can talk about these kinds of things. We just get on really well.”

In a few weeks’ time, Moeen and the rest of Eoin Morgan’s squad will begin their World Cup journey, the start of what has been described as a ‘once in a lifetime summer’ for England’s cricketers. “I’m very excited,” he says. “A lot of people are calling us the favorites, and rightly so I think. Just dealing with the pressure is going to be the only thing. Apart from that we’re very confident. We have a very good side.”

There is some staggering ball-striking talent in England’s batting line-up, and it does not sound like Moeen is boasting when he articulates the team’s belief in that firepower. “We can chase anything, beat anyone — that’s our belief. And we can play any style of cricket on different pitches now. Even our bowling unit is pretty much nailed on. We are raring to go. We have a point to prove as a group of guys. Hopefully there’s something for our country to cheer about.”

A year ago, though, Moeen’s confidence in his own game had perhaps begun to ebb away. After a difficult Ashes series, he was dropped from the England Test side in New Zealand and later left out of the home series against Pakistan. England’s national selector, Ed Smith, bluntly remarked that Moeen was not his first-choice spinner. But when he was recalled, for the fourth Test against India at Southampton, any doubts over the off-spinner’s quality were swiftly banished. Moeen took nine for 134, leaving R. Ashwin in the shade and spurring his side to a series-clinching victory. “When I got dropped, I was actually a little bit pleased. I needed to get out of it for a little bit. Since then, I’ve not looked back. I wanted to prove to myself and to the England team that I can be the [number one] spinner and I can win games still.”

Key to handling such career ups and downs has been Moeen’s strong Muslim faith. “It keeps me content, first of all, and level-headed,” he says. “It keeps me in the present. Sometimes you can look too far ahead or too far behind. Whatever’s done is done. It is just a game of cricket. It’s my job. I try and do it the best I can. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I’m never too down about things, I’m never too over the top. It just puts things into perspective.”

Being a practising Muslim in the England dressing room, Moeen has found, has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. “You always, in the back of your mind, have this doubt about how you’re going to be accepted. But the guys are so good. The day I walked in I always felt like I was part of the team. I felt accepted. I don’t think anyone

looks at me as a person with a beard now. I think the guys actually look past that and know what I am like deep down. The guys have been amazing. I love playing for England and being a part of the side. I feel like I’m representing not just my country but I’m also representing people who want to practise different faiths, no matter what they are. You can do that and play cricket for England.”


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