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The Ali Cousin Brothers: Working Class to County Cricket Class … and as British as Any Muslim can be

December 18, 2014

Scyld Berry, in The Telegraph, 4 October 2014 … where the title readsMoeen Ali reflects on his incredible journey from Birmingham tarmac to the hallowed turf of Lord’s”

It is the size of an Olympic swimming pool, only it is covered in rough tarmac. It is set in a scruffy park in south Birmingham, through which a tornado went nine years ago, but here Moeen Ali, the find of the English season, learned to play cricket. “We used to live there,” said Moeen, driving down Stoney Lane and pointing to a row of rundown terraced houses. “I don’t live far away now, in fact I never want to leave this area. I love it here.”

STONEY LANE PARK Proving ground: England spin bowler Moeen Ali sits in Stoney Lane Park, the patch of tarmac in Sparkhill, Birmingham, where he started playing cricket. Photo: Andrew Fox

 Because of the multiracial harmony? “Yes, that was very good, it was really mixed when I was growing up. That’s why I don’t have a problem when it comes to people’s origin – because I was raised to mix in and feel normal and be a straight sort of person. I feel safer living in a community like this than going to a posher area. I went to a school called Nelson Mandela primary over there from the age of three.”

The school fence forms the cover boundary for a left-handed batsman like himself, while Brunswick Road is the legside boundary. “For a wicket we used to borrow a milk crate from that grocery shop. It was a bit wider than a normal set of stumps but at least it meant that when someone got in you had a chance of getting him out. Even when we played a Test match, of two innings a side, a good total was 120 or 130.” And this rough tarmac has been as fertile as any cricket soil in England.

Two Test cricketers grew up on it: Moeen and his first cousin Kabir Ali, who took five wickets in his sole Test in 2003; and three county cricketers in Moeen’s elder brother Kadeer Ali; Naqaash Tahir, who took more than 100 first-class wickets for Warwickshire; and Rawait Khan, who played for Derbyshire; not to mention Moeen’s younger brother Omar who represented MCC Young Cricketers and Shropshire.

“We’ve also seen a lot of stuff here which I’m not sure you should see as a kid – like a lot of fights, big fights,” Moeen recalled. “A few gangs would come here, they were very tough guys – they played cricket as well here and there. It wasn’t like it is now where people have knives – it was a proper fight, a pitch fight. I used to find it quite scary when I was young, seeing grown men fighting, but after a while I got used to it. Obviously I didn’t like seeing it but it was quite a normal thing.”

mOEEN-www.telegraph.co.uk Moeen Ali –Pic from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

So while several of England’s players wilted when the second Test against Sri Lanka at Headingley turned into a pitch fight – Mahela Jayawardene was proved all too accurate when he said they would buckle under pressure – Moeen stood up and batted throughout the final day. England’s last scrapper, Paul Collingwood, would have rolled up his sleeves in the thick of it, but Moeen’s answer was to rise serenely above the battle. Had James Anderson lasted two more balls, Moeen’s unbeaten 108 would have joined the top half‑dozen match-saving innings for England.

In their Olympic pool, of sorts, these lads would play cricket summer and winter, only forsaking it “if football was buzzing”. Moeen pointed at some broken shades and ripped wires: “We used to have lights, and in the holidays we’d come straight away in the morning and wouldn’t finish till the evening, just go home for a quick lunch and come back out. They were the days. I used to love it.

“When I was batting, I was Marcus Trescothick. I loved watching him bat because I think he was the first England opener that I can remember coming out and really taking the bowling on, and I thought: ‘wow!’” But Moeen’s left-handed stroke play is more evocative of David Gower – to the point where he can make batting look so simple it is all the more vexing when he gets out.

Aged 14 Moeen scored 195 not out for Moseley-Ashfield Under-15s against Blossomfield Under-15s – in a 20-over match. He remembers it as his first taste of sledging, because the opposing captain told Moeen he was going to get him out, and how. “He bowled his first two overs for eight runs,” Moeen remembered, “and four overs for 60.”

When invited for his first trial at Edgbaston, Moeen had to borrow pads from Naqaash Tahir’s brother Shiraz. They were left-hander’s pads but “they came up to here” said Moeen, pointing to his stomach. His father, Munir, had lost his job as a psychiatric nurse after a minor stroke, and money was in such short supply that one day when Moeen and his two brothers went to a game, after they had put petrol in the car – “a green broken Rover” – which they shared with Munir’s twin brother, they had one pound left, for the whole family, and bought a loaf of bread. Yet the boys brought out their sandwiches at the tea break to give to their mum and dad.

“My dad did anything for us. He used to pay Neal Abberley [Warwickshire’s batting coach] £50 a session for me – this was outside the academy – and I don’t know how he used to pay for it.”

Looking back, he sees his upbringing gave him “a perfect balance” between being coached and natural. “My dad told me to play all my shots here [in the pool], while I got my discipline and technical work from Neal Abberley. I was told it always depends on which school you go to,” said Moeen, who went on to Moseley School. “I was very determined to prove that you can go to any school and make it. I played against men from an early age, so when I played in my own age-group I found it easier to prove to people you don’t have to go to a public school.

“I always bowled a little bit of off‑spin and leg‑spin, but I mainly bowled medium-pace until I was 15 and hurt my back. Then Steve Perryman [Warwickshire’s bowling coach] saw me bowl two balls of offspin and said: ‘Right, from this day you’re not bowling anything but offspin.’ ”

He was not the only spinner in the pool. “I remember this guy who hurt his foot playing football and all of a sudden he started bowling these leg-spinners that spun massive, and you used to get guys who bowled funny sorts of off‑spinners. With a taped tennis ball you don’t get a lot of spin, but these guys were ragging it.”

If there were 30 players in this pool, of whom six reached professional standard, how many dropped out because they could not afford the fees to play club cricket? Moeen paused: “Loads – 15 to 20.” It is an appalling, unnecessary, scandalous waste that lads who spun it more than England’s spinner have been excluded for being poor, while English cricket laments its lack of spinners. When selected to succeed Graeme Swann, Moeen was branded a part-timer, not least by his captain Alastair Cook. That changed after his Damascene moment in the nets at Lord’s before the second Test against India, when the umpire Kumar Dharmasena, a former offspinner for Sri Lanka, told Moeen to grab his pocket with his left hand in delivery. Moeen’s left or leading arm had waved out towards mid-off in his follow-through. Now, by bringing it straight down to his left pocket, he added pace, bounce and snap to his offbreaks. Simultaneously Dharmasena offered the same advice to Simon Kerrigan – but 10 days ago Kerrigan had not changed, Middlesex escaped, and Lancashire were demoted from the County Championship’s first division.

The serenity was manifest again when Moeen was expected to bowl India out in their second innings at Southampton and Old Trafford, and took six for 67 and four for 39. (So green was the Oval that he was given one over in India’s final capitulation.) Instead of striving to take wickets, Moeen simply bowled his best. The ugly duckling had become a Swann.

He ascribes this serenity to his Muslim faith. “It teaches about being patient and very calm, and that there’s more to life than just cricket. I’m very concerned about humanity and hope to make a difference” – which he did by auctioning the two wristbands he was ordered to remove at the Southampton Test and donating the £500 to the Gaza appeal last weekend.

The first three Tests against India coincided with Ramadan, when Moeen set his alarm for before dawn, ate dates and drank water, prayed and went back to sleep – then fasted through the whole day’s play. “I always seem to perform better in Ramadan because I know if I don’t, people will get on my back.” Hashim Amla and Younis Khan have batted through the hottest days in Ramadan. Mental strength is worth more than all the one-percenters put together.

Last season’s low point was the shameful booing by India supporters at the Twenty20 international at Edgbaston, but he does not point a finger. “It was disappointing because it was my home town and the first time my family had come to watch me.”

A mercy that his English grandmother, Betty Cox, who married his Kashmiri grandfather, could not attend because she was in hospital. “When I was picked for England, she said: ‘I’m really proud and I love that you’re playing for my country’ – and that really inspired me.”

You will have to go a long way – probably to Sri Lanka, to Kumar Sangakkara’s house – to find an international cricketer so wise and worldly-wise as Moeen Ali at 27. Even if so many inner-city cricketers have been lost, at least he has been found.

Moeen Ali has been shortlisted as Professional Cricketer of the Year in the Asian Cricket Awards, to be held at Lord’s on Oct 7.

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