Moeen Ali is used to dealing with a certain amount of confusion about his role in the England team. He started this series as England’s designated “second spinner”, when Liam Dawson (remember him?) was drafted in to shore up their options for Lord’s and Trent Bridge. And Moeen started this match by coming in at No. 9, after Toby Roland-Jones’ peculiar promotion as a non-batting nightwatchman in England’s first innings.
But the confusion, on this final day of the Investec Test series, was all in the minds of South Africa’s middle and lower order, as Moeen first broke the spirited resistance of their senior batsman, Hashim Amla, before ripping through the defences of Quinton de Kock and Theunis de Bruyn in the space of 10 innings-wrecking deliveries. He then put the seal on an emphatic 177-run victory at 5.35pm, with the back-to-back scalps of Morne Morkel and Duanne Olivier, who was caught at slip for a golden duck to complete Moeen’s innings figures of 5 for 69, and a phenomenal haul of 25 wickets at 15.64 – the most by an England spinner since 1961.
Add to that his impressive haul of 252 runs – including his onslaught on the third evening of this match (he eventually finished 75 not out as England were bowled out for 243 in the space of 17 more deliveries this morning) – and Moeen, second spinner or not, has marched unequivocably into the annals of the game’s most telling allrounders.
England’s victory had never really been in doubt, given how daunting South Africa’s target of 380 had been on an increasingly spiteful pitch. But while Amla and South Africa’s captain Faf du Plessis were adding 123 for the fourth wicket in a skilful and determined stand, the prospect of the match spilling over into a fifth day had been a growing possibility – and given that today’s play featured an hour-long delay for rain, that might have elicited one or two anxious glances through the curtains.
But in the end, it was all academic, as England racked up a comprehensive 3-1 series win, their first at home to South Africa since 1998. Moeen, to no-one’s surprise, was named both Man of the Match and the Series, having set it all in motion with ten wickets at Lord’s in the opening Test, while Joe Root had the honour of lifting the Basil D’Oliviera Trophy to mark a successful start to his era as Test captain. Or rather, his deputy, Ben Stokes did – Root’s hands were already taken up by the official Investec Trophy as the champagne began to flow.
It was comfortable in the end, but it would not have been greedy of England to expect an even more comprehensive win, given how dominant their senior seamers, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, had been at the start of South Africa’s chase. Exploiting every vagary in a pitch that had been juiced up by an hour of rain, the pair accounted for both openers, Dean Elgar and Heino Kuhn, in a peerless display of new-ball aggression, before Toby Roland-Jones popped up on the stroke of lunch to extract Temba Bavuma with an edge so thin that he hadn’t even heard it himself.
And so Amla and du Plessis were brought together immediately after lunch, knowing that, at 40 for 3, any hope of survival realistically rested on their shoulders. Both men had proven track records when it comes to batting long and digging deep. Amla, whose national-record 311 not out came on their last tour of England in 2012, was the obvious focal point of South Africa’s resistance, while du Plessis made his name as a Test batsman in his very first innings, against Australia at Adelaide in November 212, digging in for 376 deliveries to produce a series-turning draw.
But, far from embarking on a blockathon, both men displayed improbable fluency throughout what had been anticipated as a fraught and attritional session. Amla had been intent on little more than survival at the outset of his innings, needing 18 deliveries to get off the mark, but he set about loosening the shackles as the hardness went out of the new ball and the spite in the wicket was tamed.
Roland-Jones, his nemesis in his previous three innings, was carted for three driven fours in a single over – the first a touch streaky, the rest a stamp of class – while a willingness to work on a new trick, even at the grand old age of 34 and with more than 8000 runs in his 107 Tests, showed that there’s plenty of life in the old dog yet.
Facing up to Moeen, who was extracting some prolific turn back into the right-hander, Amla thrust his pad, with the bat as an afterthought, at a delivery that was almost certainly heading for middle stump but umpire Aleem Dar understandably accepted that he had been playing a stroke. Replays might have argued otherwise, and Amla, on 12 at the time, perhaps realised that to repeat that tactic would invite retribution. So he opted instead to unfurl the reverse sweep – a shot he had played, by some estimations, on just three previous occasions in his Test career.