“How’s it going?” Moeen Ali asks as if it’s just another ordinary summer afternoon rather than an hour since he became only the fourth man in history to complete a Test victory by taking a hat-trick.
Moeen’s deceptively casual way of answering my phone call at The Oval on Monday afternoon soon gives way to delight when, 12 days since we met in Birmingham, he returns to the reflective tone of that first interview.
“Oh, it’s such a great feeling,” Moeen says amid the thrill of his feat against South Africa. “I never came close to a hat-trick before – not even at Moseley Ashfield [his junior club in Birmingham]. So I can’t wait to get home this evening to see everyone. It will be a happy night but I’ll celebrate with the boys here first and have a couple of Cokes.”
Moeen laughs as we remember him discussing the temptations of his youth, before he discovered Islam, but he becomes thoughtful again when I ask if his father has been at The Oval. “Unfortunately he couldn’t be here today but I’m sure he watched every ball. Him and my mum just messaged me. They sounded so happy and proud – just like me. It feels like I’ve come so far. Like I said to you last time, it now feels like every day of my life in cricket is such a bonus.”
That afternoon in Birmingham seems even more resonant now, especially when I listen again to our first interview.
“I’ve not been here for years,” Moeen says as his voice echoes softly around Moseley Ashfield’s empty clubhouse 12 days earlier. “It’s incredible. Nothing’s changed.”
Moeen’s magnificently bearded face breaks into a smile as we approach some old Moseley photographs on the wall. “There I am,” he says, pointing at his 13-year-old self, a boy whose shy pride shines out of his smooth face. Moeen taps a team-mate behind the glass. “He’s still my best mate and there’s my younger brother, and I met this guy in Asda not long ago. I don’t think he plays cricket now.”
The troubles of the world recede – as does England’s unpredictable series against South Africa, in which a crushing defeat in the second Test was followed by their 239-run win at The Oval. Moeen is also more intrigued by the past at Moseley Ashfield than his starring role in England’s equally convincing victory in the first Test at Lord’s, where he was outstanding with bat and ball and passed 2,000 runs and 100 wickets in the Test arena. The fourth and final Test begins on Friday at Old Trafford but he gazes at a scorecard from a Moseley under-15 game in June 2001.
“I remember it very well,” Moeen says of a 20-over match in which he hit an unbeaten 195. The next highest score was 11 in Moseley’s total of 236. “I actually started slowly. Look at the opening four overs. I didn’t score many as I was nervous.”
Moeen is back in more innocent days, remembering a time three months before the world changed forever on 9/11. Terror attacks on great cities across the globe were still rare and Islamophobia had yet to spread with casual vehemence but, coming from a poor Asian family in Birmingham, there were dangers for Moeen as a boy.
“If it wasn’t for cricket I don’t know what I’d be doing now,” he says. “I could have easily gone into that whole drugs line. I was pretty open to it because my friends were easily influenced. I get dared pretty easy. If someone dares me to do something I’ll just do it. I used to go: ‘Yeah, why not?’”
Moeen, who is now a dedicated Muslim, adds: “Them days were tough but even then I knew that was wrong. I also knew from the age of 12 that cricket was the only thing I was going to do. I thought: ‘If it’s not good for my cricket I’m not doing anything.’ But there’s a group of guys who are the coolest in the school and you want to be part of that. You feel you have to do things you wouldn’t normally do but most of the time I was pretty normal.”
He stresses how much his father suffered long before Moeen was born. Racism could be so distressing in Birmingham in the 1970s that his dad, Minar, succumbed to a stammer that still troubles him. “It was much harder for my dad and his brother. They are twins and they went through a lot. They both stammered – and still do. My dad is not as bad as his twin and he speaks more now but the hardship continued. My dad had to give up his job as a psychiatric nurse. He got caught sleeping because he was exhausted. Even to this day he said he gave up the job but I think they got rid of him. He also suffered a minor stroke when I was about 13.”
Cricket became a refuge for the extended family – as his brothers and cousins have all played county or minor counties cricket. “It took a lot of sacrifice from my dad. He managed to put cricket nets in our garden because he knew we had to practise every day. That would also keep us away from the streets.
“My dad and uncle were so protective so whenever someone would say or do something to harm us they were right there. They were very shy but you cross a line with them and the temper can get quite rough. There was an incident where a guy nearly killed me on this road. I was 14 and he wanted to hurt me.”
Moeen opens his eyes wide at the memory of a car driving into him on purpose just a short walk from we now sit. “He was an Asian guy so it wasn’t racist – unless he thought I was a white kid because I used to be very fair. But to this day I don’t know why he did that. My dad was angry but thankfully some firemen stopped everything.”
If his father had not supported him so staunchly it’s unlikely Moeen would have played 40 Tests for England. And so he laments the loss of many of his Asian contemporaries who did not receive the same parental help. “At that time, because it wasn’t seen as a career by Asians, they would just drop their kid off and go home. Whereas my dad would watch us, support us as much as he could. He helped us live and breathe the game. One of my best friends was a very talented all-rounder but the difference was that my parents pushed me a lot more.
“Now, a lot more south Asian people are thinking: ‘Actually, I could make a good career from this now.’ But it’s also down to the counties to do more to help South-Asian kids. Look at Warwickshire. This is a big city of Asian people, so why can’t you produce any south Asian players? I don’t understand. Either the coaching system is not great or they just don’t know how to tap into it or they’ve not tried. The counties should take more responsibility.”
What does Moeen think of the ECB’s new south Asian initiative – where the governing body is, through workshops and proactive schemes, engaging with these local communities? “It’s a very good step in the right direction to ask people how the ECB can help them. It’s very positive because the pool of talent is vast. But the south Asian mentality must also change. Cricket is not just batting and bowling. There’s a lot of physical stuff, fitness, fielding, diet, discipline, being on time. A lot of talented south Asians have been county players but they’re always late. The ECB scheme is good but the players must be ready to sacrifice.”
If cricket saved Moeen from the streets, it can now help disaffected young Muslims feel less alienated. It can also, as the ECB initiative strives to do, unite communities. “I think it can,” Moeen says. “There is such negativity in the media around Islam but when I play cricket for England I don’t have to say anything. I’m hoping people look at me and other Muslims and think: ‘Actually, it will be all right. They’re not too bad.’”
Does Moeen still suffer abuse as a Muslim? “I’m not a massive reader of online comments but I come across the odd comment where people still question if I’m English. I find that so silly.”
Moeen’s face scrunches up but his soft Brummie accent rings out. “There’s still work to be done.”
Has he felt increased Islamophobia in the wake of attacks in Westminster, Manchester and outside the Finsbury Park mosque? “Oh yeah. 100%. As soon as it’s a Muslim guy it’s always: ‘Terrorist this, terrorist that.’ And if it’s not a Muslim guy it’s: ‘Oh, he’s mentally ill. He’s a lone wolf.’ But the more they try and knock us down the more united we’ll be as a country. As Muslims we’ll start opening up a bit more.”
Moeen nods enthusiastically when I mention the composure and restraint of Mohammed Mahmoud the Finsbury Park imam. “People wanted to beat the guy up who did the attack. The imam stopped them from using violence and that’s exactly what Islam is about. It was great something positive came out of it.”
Does he feel disillusioned by Islamophobia in this country and the corrosive presidency of Donald Trump? “I knew Trump would win so it was no surprise. I’m big on thinking it’s already been decreed. It’s God’s will. We will overcome all the problems eventually.”
But how does he feel when Trump seeks to ban travellers from certain Muslim countries? “Yeah, that is tough. It was always going to be tough once he got in but you just keep going and look at the positives. I know it’s easy for me to say that, as a cricketer, when people are going through a lot more. But my own test will come.”
Moeen faced a small ordeal three years ago when, in his fifth Test, against India at the Rose Bowl, he caused controversy on the second day by wearing wristbands which read “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine”. “It was humanitarian. I’m actually glad it happened even if I was a bit naive putting them on during the game. But it’s still very close to me. People are quiet but there’s still suffering in Gaza now.
“There is suffering in many Muslim and non-Muslim countries. We spend billions going into space and we can’t even look after people. I find that hard to accept. We’ve let each other down big time regardless of our colour, faith or community. We should help people without a political agenda. It should be done out of compassion, without hesitation. I find that [lack of compassion] the hardest thing to take these days.”
We have spoken for 40 minutes before returning to the Test series. If nothing else the ups and downs should keep both teams as grounded and humble as Moeen. “There are probably more downs than ups in life and cricket. You try to stay level-headed and cricket has taught me so much. I used to be really shy, and still am, but I can stand up in front of people now and talk. I wouldn’t say I was great at it but I’m out of my shell because of cricket. People assume I would be quiet and serious but in the changing room I like to crack a few jokes.”
For all his concern about the wider world, Moeen is rightly proud of his achievements. “The Lord’s Test felt like I was rewarded after 30-odd games for England. People forget it’s not easy playing for England. We lost the second Test and there was a lot of scrutiny.”
Moeen is so versatile he gets shunted up and down the order – and was back to No8 despite his batting average of 48 over the last 18 months. He also gets called “a second spinner” even when he is clearly the best slow bowler in England’s Test squad.
“It’s difficult but when I get the ball I just want to get a wicket. As a batter I just want to play my shots. I don’t want to look back one day and regret anything. With the whole ‘second spinner’ thing, I like having two spinners. But it’s difficult because I’ve obviously played more than the guys coming in. I’ve got more wickets. Even though I’m a senior spinner I don’t think I’m a great spinner but I’m not bad either.”
When his cricket career ends Moeen would be content cleaning the toilets in his local mosque. “I’d love to do something like that. I’m not trying to be humble – it is genuinely something I would enjoy as I’d spend time in the mosque.”
In the meantime Moeen and his wife have finally bought their own home. “It was only last year we moved out from my parents’ house. It was tough but it was the right thing. We’re only around the corner anyway.”
It was timely as, six weeks ago, Moeen turned 30. He laughs in disbelief. “I thought: ‘Now I’m getting old. There will be a day when I’m not going to be breathing.’ I know it’s quite deep thinking but it was like, from now on, you have to savour each moment. I’d like to play as long as I can but I’m already happy with how much I’ve done for England. Everything that follows is a bonus.”
He looks around the small clubhouse where he grew to love cricket – the game which helped a young boy find himself. He looks at home. “Yeah, it’s good here,” he says, quietly. “It’s got a special feeling.”
At The Oval that special feeling is enhanced. “Not bad for a second spinner,” I joke as Moeen is now the leading wicket-taker in the series with 18 – four more than any other bowler. “Yeah, not too bad at all,” Moeen chuckles. “The strange thing is that, apart from those three balls, I didn’t bowl that well. But I worked hard and it paid off. I’m more chuffed that we won the game and are 2-1 up in the series.”
Beyond mere sport, however, such a magical afternoon will surely help erode the lingering suspicion of some people who still doubt England’s Muslim cricketers. Moeen’s answer, is emphatic. “100%,” he says, his gentle voice ringing with the conviction of a man who has done more than just seal a Test match with a hat-trick.
The ECB wants to hear from people in south Asian communities who play or follow cricket to help shape future plans for the game. Visit www.ecb.co.uk/southasiancricket
Article by Donald McRae