Moeen Ali did not refuse to stay on tour. Joe Root did not mean to hang Moeen Ali out to dry. And Moeen Ali’s Test career does not have to be over.
Within hours of the announcement that Moeen would be following the pre-series plan of leaving the bubble and returning home after the second Test defeat in Chennai, the narrative had reached fever pitch.
Former England captains claimed a conspiracy to de-prioritise Test cricket. The current England captain was forced to quash claims that Moeen’s Test career was over. The more sensible end of the journalistic fraternity rallied behind Moeen, but in the same breath criticised England for a possible double standard over COVID bubble rest.
It’s important that we consider the role of unconscious bias when it comes to England’s treatment of Moeen, as some have but the idea that England have actively chosen not to support him is based on a misreading of Joe Root’s comments.
Root, in a rare misstep for him on this winter odyssey, misspoke when he said that Moeen had ‘chosen’ to leave, but that is not all that he said.
“Obviously it’s been a very tricky tour for him, and as mentioned at the start [of the tour], if players feel they need to get out of the bubble, then that’s been an option and it’s important that we stand by that.”
He continued: “It’s been a very difficult tour for him, having to deal with Covid and being in his room for such long periods of time. You come to a point where you want to get out of the bubble and that’s absolutely fair. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision for him, but it’s one that we respect.”
These are not the words of a captain fuming at a player’s disloyalty. They are the words of a captain whose mind is still on the game he has just badly lost, and who is trying to support one of his players but chose – tricky word, that – the wrong word.
England made it clear before the series began that their all-format players would all get a window of rest outside the bubble. Think of it as mandatory annual leave. They also made it clear that these windows of rest would occur before, not after, problems arose.
Now, one errant word from a usually eloquent captain has drawn them into a vortex of bullshit around what should be a simple case of a player being told by his employer to take the only chance to snatch a week at home he’ll get for five months.
If nothing else, we now know just how good at the public-facing side of his job England head selector Ed Smith is. Smith, for all the legitimate criticisms against his man-management and his journalistic ethics, has done a fine job going to bat for England’s COVID rotation policy. The players also have to buy into it, and until now, they all have. Smith, Root and head coach Chris Silverwood deserve credit for this too.
But a misspoken ‘chosen’ from Root, a public loss of confidence in Dom Bess by Root and Silverwood, and a request by Smith to Moeen to stay on tour that should never have been made and could not in good faith have been accepted, has led to the first major challenge to this united front.
With 13 Tests, three white-ball series and a T20 World Cup still to come, England must now ensure that they remain true to the far-sighted and compassionate approach they have taken to cricket in the time of COVID.