Moeen Ali opens his shoulders to keep England on front foot

All-rounder’s unbeaten 67 from 59 balls puts England 360 runs ahead

England’s  Moeen Ali hits a six during day three of the fourth  Test against South Africa  at  Old Trafford. Photograph:  Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

England’s Moeen Ali hits a six during day three of the fourth Test against South Africa at Old Trafford. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

 

Moeen Ali, who contrives to be both irrepressible and phlegmatic at the same time, ensured that England will begin the fourth day against South Africa with the comfort of a 360 run lead and two wickets still standing at Old Trafford.

At 134 for six there was a danger that England, despite a first innings advantage of 136 runs, might squander the dominance that they had earnt over the first two days. But then their invaluable all-rounder (it may be best to give up on the “second spinner” or “batsman-who-bowls” labels) delivered an innings of dash and daring which leaves a creaking South African side with a mountain to climb.

Moeen was unbeaten on 67 from 59 balls when a grey Old Trafford day was finally enshrouded by drizzle. Moeen’s response to a faltering England innings was wonderfully carefree, which is how he usually manages to play his cricket.

He went for his shots in thrilling style and fortune favoured such a brave approach. On 15 he should have been caught at slip by Dean Elgar off the left-arm spin of Keshav Maharaj but the ball somehow spilled out of the hands. How Moeen made the South Africans pay for that drop. He would go on to smite the long-suffering spinner for three mighty sixes. Soon he was batting with such confidence that he was convinced he could clear the increasing number of fielders on the boundary. And he was right.

Here was an innings that capped a marvellous series for Moeen. He is increasingly at ease with his fresh identity as a cricketer. He will probably propel many more overs in the final innings of this series and so far against the South Africans he has bowled better than at any stage of his Test career. Moreover he has come to terms with the freedoms and restrictions of batting at number eight, a position that was alien to him during his county career. Now it is a statement of the obvious that Moeen is an invaluable, inked-in member of a team, which needed his contribution to feel secure at the end of the third day.

It all started in a routine manner for England with South Africa’s last batsman, Duane Olivier, top-edging a bouncer to become the third victim for Stuart Broad, who had the impudence to occupy the James Anderson End while his old sparring partner was compelled to bowl from the less-favoured end that does not bear his name. So England had their substantial lead, which would be a relief for them as the upper order stuttered yet again on what is proving an excellent cricket pitch – it is deteriorating nicely at an appropriate rate.

Both Alastair Cook and Tom Westley were caught in the gully as they attempted to drive the deserving Morne Morkel. Meanwhile, there was the familiar agonising over Keaton Jennings. As usual he was dropped by Elgar in the slips early on – this time before scoring – and then he battled away to lunch, which took some doing in taxing conditions.

But straight after the interval Jennings was caught by Hashim Amla at first slip when cutting at Kagiso Rabada for 18. Surely this is not enough for him to stay in the side. His tally for the series is 127 runs at an average of 15.88. It may be that his straw has been short since runs could well be easier to come by in the series against the West Indies. But the search for a permanent partner for Cook continues.

Nor did Dawid Malan advance his claims to stay in the team for the first Test against the West Indies in Birmingham. He came down the wicket to Maharaj, who was turning the ball out of the footmarks; the problem with choosing to defend the ball when moving down the pitch is that this process gives the inside edge off the pad the momentum required to carry to the fielder, which is what happened here as the ball landed gently in the hands of Theunis de Bruyn at short-leg.

As ever Joe Root was able to cope better than anyone else in a series where the batsmen have never had it easy. All seemed under control while he was there but then the unlikely figure of Olivier took centre stage. Seeking the single needed for another half-century Root attempted to guide the ball down to third man but an inside edge deflected on to his stumps. Then Olivier contrived the swift exit of Ben Stokes, pursued not by a bear but a TV cameraman after he had been caught at slip.

After tea the South Africans may have scented that an extraordinary resurrection was possible when Jonny Bairstow, who had taken 25 balls to get off the mark, spooned a catch to long-leg reducing England to 153 for seven. But then came Moeen’s escape, soon to be followed by his sparkling strokeplay mostly when he was hitting with the spin against Maharaj.

Earlier in the summer after a successful white-ball bash for England, Moeen claimed in a typically self-effacing way: “I can’t hit sixes like the others”. But here he was at his most effervescent, advancing down the track and crunching his drives deep into the stands. One of the sixes, which took him to a 49-ball half-century, was nonchalantly caught on the players’ balcony by the ever-alert Bairstow. Even before this little cameo the smiles had returned to the England camp.

(Guardian Service)

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