Moeen Ali banishes memories of his winter of discontent
Moeen Ali may feel this was a performance he owed England but it was, perhaps, a performance he was owed, too.
Moeen had a horrible winter in Test cricket. With the bat he averaged just 18.81 and with the ball he claimed just five wickets in six Tests at a cost of 126.80 apiece. On the surface, those figures suggest he could have no complaints when he was dropped.
But scratch at the surface of them and you find another example of Moeen's personal record being compromised in an attempt to plug holes in other areas of the team. To some extent that is quite right, too. Just as Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes are all batting out of position in this match, so the overall good of the team has to take precedence over the good of the individual. But it really is remarkable how often Moeen has been asked to accommodate the limitations of others.
Take that grim Ashes tour. On pretty much the first day of training, he sustained a side strain. Then, when he was finally able to bowl, he ripped his spinning finger on the unfamiliar seam of the kookaburra ball. As a result, he went into the Test series both lacking in rhythm and unable to spin the ball as he would have liked. On those pitches, against Steve Smith and co, it was a fatal combination.
He probably shouldn't have played in that first Test. But England's captain and coach had decided to overrule the other selectors and take only one other spinner in the tour party. And while the other selectors were tempted to pick Jack Leach, the Somerset left-armer, the more aggressive-minded team management went for 20-year-old leg-spinner Mason Crane. But then, when the first Test came round, they were understandably reluctant to thrust him in as the only frontline spinner.
Moeen was, as so often, the man asked to cover for England's failings. He played before he was ready, Australia's batsmen milked him like a Friesian and his confidence dropped sharply. The fact that he also struggled with the bat didn't help.
It was far from the first time his mild manner and versatile game had counted again him. He has batted everywhere from No. 1 to No. 9 in this side, with England reacting to his two centuries in India (made from No. 5 and No. 4) by moving him back to No. 7 as soon as they returned to England. He was told he was second choice spinner ahead of the 2017 domestic summer and, within weeks, promoted to first choice and expected to show no loss of confidence or form as a result.
Moeen was hardly the first offspinner to endure a tough time in Australia, either. And it did seem to be forgotten a little too quickly that, in England's summer of 2017, he claimed 30 Test wickets at an average of 21.30 including two five-wicket hauls and a hat-trick. Equally, it seemed to be forgotten quite quickly that Moeen reached the milestone of 2000 Test runs and 100 Test wickets quicker than Garry Sobers, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan or Ian Botham. Only five England offspinners have taken more than his 138 Test wickets and, despite having played 13 Tests fewer than John Emburey, he is just nine wickets shy of his record. He could well become the second English offspinner (Graeme Swann is the other) to claim 200 Test wickets.
So he probably deserved a few factors in his favour here. For a start, he had some footholes to bowl into as a result, on the whole, of India's seamers bowling round the wicket to discomfort England's left-handers. That meant some balls turned quite sharply and forced batsmen into playing more deliveries than they might have liked.
And Sanjay Bangar, the India batting coach, was probably right when he described a couple of the dismissals against Moeen - notably R Ashwin's reverse sweep and Hardik Pandya's clip to midwicket - as "soft". But they were also the shots of batsmen unsure of their defence against the dipping, turning ball; batsmen trying to hit Moeen off his length as they knew its danger. They weren't, perhaps, quite as soft as they looked.
Besides, with just a bit of luck, he might have claimed the key wicket of Virat Kohli. He did find the edge of Kohli's bat but, with Stokes a little wide at first slip, the chance flew between him and the keeper.
It was a moment that demonstrated Moeen's weapons, though. He has the wonderful ability to bowl with flight and pace and, with the drift he gains, he does challenge both edges of the bat. With confidence regained after a stint back at Worcestershire, he may well be bowling better than ever before. This was the third five-wicket haul he has claimed in his last three first-class matches. He only has 12 in his career. It also saw his Test bowling average dip below 40 once more.
It didn't do any harm that he came into this game in some form, either. As well as those wickets, he made a double hundred in his last Championship match and his maiden T20 century against Warwickshire a couple of days before that. Nor had he forgotten his previous Test here when he claimed 6 for 67 against India in what can probably be seen as a breakthrough performance with the ball.
"After my first over, I thought I was going to be in the game throughout this Test," he said. "It's always nice for an offspinner when there's a bit of rough. And I was bowling at the same end as last time. That gave me some confidence.
"It's all about mindset with me. I didn't need to change too much technically. I just needed a fresh start. It's nice to get a call-up when you're in decent nick with bat and ball. You come into the game with confidence: it's exactly what county cricket should be doing. I've loved being back at Worcester.
"It was about believing I'm not a bad player after one bad winter. Many players have gone through that. It was about clearing my mind and moving on."
Quite who this leaves as England's first choice spinner at The Oval is anyone's guess. It may prove their preponderance of allrounders allows England to persist with the two spinner formula but, with one of them having bowled only 55 overs in the series to date, it is something of a luxury. With Chris Woakes likely to be fit for the final Test, the selectors may have some tricky decisions to make.
But Moeen insisted he does prefer to be thought of as a batsman who fulfils the role of second spinner. It relieves him of the burden of expectation.
"The role in the side now is my best role," he said. "I'm mainly selected as a batter, but then I come on as a second spinner. It gives me a lot more confidence and freedom. I actually end up playing better."
Whether England can regularly afford such a policy remains to be seen, but it may work in Sri Lanka. Besides, the issue with Adil Rashid was summed up by his first delivery. He had the skill to take Kohli's inside edge with a googly that ballooned into the air off the pad. But there was no body at silly point to take the chance as Root had felt the need - the understandable need - to post a deep extra cover, a deep midwicket and a deep backward square. It's fine to say Root should have been more aggressive, but he is aware that Rashid may well bowl a four-ball or two most overs and, when you're defending a first-innings total of 246, these things matter.
Either way, after five months out of the side, Moeen has returned to show his value once more. He's never pretended he was the best spinner England have ever had and he's never threatened to be the most reliable batsman. But that self-deprecating demeanour sometimes deflects attention from a record - one that now includes five Test centuries and five five-wicket hauls - that sometimes doesn't gain the respect it deserves.