Moeen Ali breaks boundaries, whether it’s on the cricket pitch or in matters of equality. David Johns talks to the hometown hero about the challenges of social media and racism, how education and sport have the power to challenge, change and inspire, and why playing for England still means so much
Every time Moeen Ali pulls on an England cricket shirt he says he does so with “the greatest sense of pride”. Growing up it was his dream and he believes every youngster should be inspired to believe that, just maybe, one day they can achieve that same feeling, regardless of sex, colour or creed.
Inclusion is what it is all about for the man known affectionately by teammates and fans simply as ‘Mo’ – or if you’re on the opposing side by the nickname ‘The Beard to be Feared’. His attacking style of batting and bowling has made him a role model for thousands of young budding cricketeers, especially right here in his hometown.
That star status meant Mo was one of the faces of the Hundred – the exciting new limited overs cricket competition launched this summer which sees batters meet rappers and cricket go from slowbiz to showbiz, complete with flashing lights, fanfares and fireworks.
HIGHS AND LOWS
As captain of Birmingham Phoenix, Mo has enjoyed a unique opportunity to bring the sport to a significantly new, much younger audience. The Phoenix, both men and women’s teams, have played their home games to an Edgbaston packed with the noise of cheering families. And Mo thinks that is just what the sport, and society in general needs after a summer which has seen the highs of the England football team reaching the final of the Euros, followed by the lows of the shocking racial abuse handed out on social media to the soccer stars after they were beaten by Italy.
A long-time outspoken campaigner for equality and inclusion, Mo has strong opinions on what happened on the likes of Twitter and Facebook. “It’s a total disgrace actually. I think Gary Neville said it, it comes from the top and he’s completely right,” he says. “I mean, I know that Boris Johnson said two things previously and Priti Patel has said stuff as well. It’s a difficult situation because it is a minority doing the abuse, but the minority is still a large number and that’s the problem and it’s too blatant. We as athletes and people who stand against racism really need to stand up and be brave and really call people out.”
SCHOOLS ARE KEY
Mo is fully behind calls to remove the anonymity racists enjoy on social media. “Revealing their identity is part of the answer for sure,” he says, “but I think that the problem needs to start to be dealt with in schools in my opinion. Most of the racism stuff comes from the home, so it’s the parents or the grandparents, etc. And this is no way shape or form just the white people I am talking about, it’s everyone, so black, Asian people, they can be just as racist and even worse at times.
“Schools need to educate their children from an early age about racism. Even though they shouldn’t need to, we just don’t know what has been taught to children at home. One thing’s for sure, there is obviously a problem in society. In the Euros it is disappointing that we lost in the final, but actually it wasn’t a bad thing because the real truth and dirt came out. After one week the footballers are heroes and then within a day, within a game actually, they are zeroes and they are getting abused. In a way it was good lesson that we lost because the real dirty tricks came out of it.”
Mo isn’t naïve enough to think that the education system can just add the subject of race and racial equality to the curriculum without Government help. “You have to fund the schools properly. We are going past that stage where we are talking about race problems and actions need to be taken now. We spend so much money on other rubbish, we need to spend money on this and the projects needed and face the ugly truth that racism exists in society.”
FAST AND FUN
As we talked, Mo was busy preparing for the next Hundred match and he spoke of the thrill of having supporters back in the ground cheering the team on. “To be honest, it’s been amazing so far. The fact that there are so many youngsters in the ground enjoying the new format, as players we are all loving it,” he said. “And people I know who have come to watch the game, have said there is something about the format that they love too. It’s obviously faster and quicker and things like that which is great.
“I feel like it is really going to take off. It will become a big tournament and I think the women’s side of it in particular will be even greater. The fact that you can access a tournament from a young age is something that youngsters can really get into. I was thinking yesterday how maybe in 10 or 15 years’ time, the same kids that watch us now will be following the team home and away. A little bit like football actually. You’d have your Brummies following their Birmingham team.”
After the excitement of the Hundred, Mo was looking to turn his attention to a packed schedule for England, culminating in the T20 World Cup being held in the UAE and Oman. Mo is one T20’s stars and is looking forward to helping England become 20-overs world champions to add to their One-Day 50-overs title. But before then, he is hoping to win back his place in the Test team in the five-match home series against India which he believes will also be the springboard to selection for the Ashes series which is slated to start – Covid permitting – in Australia in December.
At the time of writing, Mo hadn’t made the cut for the first two tests against India, but was hopeful of getting picked for the remaining three Tests by returning and playing well for his home county Worcestershire and impressing the England selectors. “I know I can do well in Test cricket, I have done before,” he said. “Test cricket is still the pinnacle and it is still my dream to play again for England in the Tests. When you play for England it is an absolute honour and before when I took my break it was because I felt like I was playing a lot of cricket generally and it was quite a tough period for myself, but now I feel I am getting back to my best and playing well.
“Likewise, I really miss Worcestershire. I always get a fantastic reception when I play there. I haven’t really played that much for Worcester to be honest because of my England commitments. It would be nice to play in the Test series and also play three or four matches for Worcester and entertain as much as I can.”
Like the rest of us, cricketers have had to cope with the challenges of the Covid pandemic. Mo contracted the virus in 2021 while on tour with England in Sri Lanka and says he has never felt so tired and run down and wouldn’t wish the virus on anyone, regardless of age. “The family has all stayed safe,” he said. “My parents had Covid, my wife and kids have been fine. Obviously, I had Covid in Sri Lanka, which is good really because if you’re going to get Covid it’s best to get it away from home.
“When you are home you are home, and in terms of the pandemic you are isolating or whatever. It does mean you get time to spend time with the family which maybe previously you wouldn’t. But then when you are away, it’s normally for a period and that’s difficult because of what’s happening in other countries. So, it’s been good and bad but hopefully what we’ve all been experiencing won’t be for much longer.”