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The face of Moeen Ali, framed by a magnificent black beard, appears on my phone. “Assalamualaikum,” he says. Peace be upon you. “How are you, brother?”
“Walaikum Assalam,” I respond. And unto you peace.
Though we’ve not met before, this ancient greeting between fellow Muslims sparks an easy rapport. Ali’s renown appears not to have led to grandeur. A celebrated sportsman, the 32-year-old was part of the England squad that won the Cricket World Cup last year.
Right now, Ali should be playing in the Indian Premier League, the world’s biggest, brashest and most lucrative cricket competition. For the six-week tournament, he was due to earn £180,000 playing for Royal Challengers Bangalore, a team featuring some of the sport’s glittering stars, among them India’s Virat Kohli and South Africa’s AB de Villiers. Thousands of ecstatic fans fill stadiums for the IPL, with almost half a billion more viewers following the matches on television.
“People talk about the razzmatazz and the money,” says Ali. “It’s not that. It’s the buzz of being part of it. The best players are playing . . . You would play for free, honestly.”
That buzz. The crowds. All has fallen silent. The coronavirus pandemic has halted sporting fixtures across the planet. The hiatus means that Ali has time to share a meal, virtually at least.
Over a Zoom call, he speaks from his home in Birmingham, the English city where he grew up in a working-class, cricket-obsessed family. He wears a kurta, a collarless shirt traditional in Pakistan. His paternal grandfather Shafayat was born there before emigrating to Britain around 1947, marrying a local woman, Betty Cox.
Ali is a skilled “all-rounder”, a spin bowler who bamboozles opponents, while also a batting aesthete whose elegant shotmaking has racked up five Test match centuries.
But it is his faith that has made him an outsized figure in British sport. His emergence in the England team since 2014 came as the nation’s past embrace of multiculturalism and immigration was being called into question. Terrorist attacks by extremists, claiming their acts are in the name of Allah, have led Britain’s Muslim community to be depicted by some rightwing politicians and commentators as harbouring an enemy within.
While England has had Muslim players in the past, few have been as publicly pious. Ali prays five times a day. He has made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. And he wears the English game’s most recognisable beard since WG Grace, the Victorian-era great. All the while he proudly states in his Brummie accent that “playing for England, I would say, is the greatest thing any cricketer can ever [do]”.
The ability to fuse love of God and country is the reason why Ali has been described by the journalist Peter Oborne as the most culturally significant English cricketer since Basil D’Oliveira. Of mixed-race ancestry, D’Oliveira had been raised in Cape Town under white minority rule and captained South Africa’s non-white team before emigrating to England. The South Africa cricket team refused to play against him in 1968, triggering an international sporting boycott of the apartheid state.
“The responsibility is heavy, of course,” says Ali of becoming a role model. “I understand why people have that connection. Because I also have that connection with other [sportspeople]. For example, Muhammad Ali, you feel like you know him. Or even Hashim Amla [the former South Africa cricket captain, also a devout Muslim]. When I first saw him, I remember thinking, “Wow, if he can do it, why can’t I?”
Our lunch is days before the start of Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast during daylight hours. We hold up our plates to the screen. Ali’s features four tightly rolled spiced chicken wraps with a side of vegetables. He appears more interested in my takeaway from a local Turkish restaurant. I’ve ordered an Adana kebab — skewers of grilled minced lamb mixed with herbs and spices. A few sides: a hefty scoop of hummus, bulgur pilaf and salad. I plan to mop this all up with lahmacun — Turkish pizza topped with lamb — as well as puffy lavas bread.
Ali susses the motivation. It is four weeks before either of us will eat lunch again. “You’ve got to go hard,” he says with approval. “I actually went big yesterday. We got doner [kebab], some chips, a wrap.” He pauses, then admits with a laugh, “and some chips again . . . Just so I can get it out of my system, because now I’ve got to be quite strict on my diet.”
The IPL is suspended indefinitely. Matches in the UK that should have begun last month are postponed until July at the earliest. But regardless of the lockdown and Ramadan, Ali plans to train at home over the coming weeks to be in shape when — or perhaps if — cricket returns.
“It’s a tricky period, but it’s also the best period,” he says of playing while fasting, having become used to abstaining from food and water during matches in previous years. “I’m on a different mission to everybody else . . . It actually takes the pressure off my cricket.”
Faith came to him relatively late. As a child, Ali attended Islamic classes to learn how to recite the Koran. He was taught how to sound out words in Arabic, but not their meaning. Harsh teachers would beat him for making errors (growing up, I had an eerily similar experience). “We didn’t even know what we were reading,” he says. “It didn’t make sense.”
Still, he retained a nagging belief in an almighty creator. Aged 18, in the mid-2000s, a chance encounter with a spectator who had converted to Islam set him on a different path.
Taking a bite of his wrap, Ali tells the story. “I didn’t get many runs,” he says. “I was more interested in talking to this guy somehow. I went and sat next to him [and said]: ‘Tell me bro, why did you become a Muslim, because I am supposed to be Muslim and I don’t agree with it.’ I didn’t agree with arranged marriages [for example].”
The man patiently explained the difference between cultural norms, such as arranged marriages, common among south Asians, and religious principles, such as “the oneness of God, His attributes, and these kind of things. That really kick-started something inside me.”
This account feels a little too neat. Surely societal factors affected the transformation? Following the 9/11 attacks in New York, I felt the reverberations across the Atlantic as my cousins, who once watched Bollywood movies and listened to rap music, began sprouting beards and wearing headscarves. For many British Muslims under suspicion by the rest of society, quiet, private faith was no longer enough.
Ali was 14 at the time of the attacks and observed a similar trend, but insists his personal journey was spiritual. “I just couldn’t deny it. It was like, ‘This is the truth for me right now.’ ”
Early on in his career, Ali suffered racial abuse from fans in the stands. In his autobiography, he recounts that during the 2015 Ashes, the Test match series between England and their bitterest rivals Australia, an opponent called him “Osama” as a taunt. (The claim was denied by the Australian player, whom Ali did not name.)
Ali says such incidents have become rare as his fame has grown. When beery England fans call him “the beard that must be feared”, they mean it as a compliment. Even so, Ali can be a target. “Whenever there’s an issue or a terrorist attack or something, you just feel like eyes are turned on you,” he says. “I’m in the same boat. I don’t know why somebody would go and do that. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
His beliefs have caused controversy, though. In 2014, he wore wristbands bearing the slogans “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine” while playing for England. At the time, Israel was bombing Palestinian territories. Ali says his gesture was humanitarian, not political.
“I got death threats,” he says. “I got letters written to me: ‘We’re going to hunt you down and we’re going to kill you.’ It’s actually crazy how big it went.”
Does he regret the episode? Not at all. He auctioned the wristbands off for charity. “A guy who I know — and he didn’t tell me [beforehand] — bought them about two or three years ago,” says Ali. He flashes a grin. “I’m going to try and get them off him.”
Ali grew up in Sparkhill, a district in Birmingham’s so-called Balti triangle packed with Asian restaurants. Life was tough. His father Munir suffered bullying and racism as a young man, which contributed to a stammer. When Ali was 13, Munir gave up his job as a psychiatric nurse following a minor stroke in order to coach his sons and nephews. (Moeen’s brothers Kadeer and Omar also became professional cricketers, while his cousin Kabir was the first in the family to represent England.)
Part of the motivation was to keep the boys off the streets. When Ali was 14, a stranger attempted to run him over in a car, leading to a fist-fight between his father and the driver. Some of his friends became hooked on drugs.
“My dad thought, ‘I’ve got to do something to get these guys completely [away from] this,’” says Ali. “I remember aged 13, my dad saying to me, ‘Give me two years [focused on cricket] . . . and then after that you can do what you want.’” He turned professional aged 15.
The prohibitive cost of equipment and coaching partly explains why passion for the game among British Asians — one of the country’s most deprived ethnic groups — does not unearth more Alis. The English team is stacked with privately educated players who benefited from years of dedicated training. Despite one in three people in the UK who play recreationally being from South Asian backgrounds, the figure falls to 4 per cent for those with a professional contract.
Moeen Ali’s house
Homemade chicken wraps
Side of cooked vegetables
Bottle of water
Murad Ahmed’s flat
Takeaway from Kervan Sofrasi, 107 Chase Side, London N14 5HD
Large Adana kofte £12.50
Bulgur pilaf, salad, lavas bread, chilli sauce (free)
Ali says his family’s dedication to the sport broke down these barriers. He remembers how his father, who made ends meet by selling chickens door-to-door, once borrowed £15 from a neighbour to afford a meal he had promised friends. The family remortgaged a house and used up savings to install a bowling machine worth thousands of pounds in the garden. “We grafted, grafted and grafted,” says Ali, but adds wistfully: “They were the best days.”
“We proved a lot of people wrong, you see. Our relatives, and even my granddad [said], ‘People are studying, people have got businesses. You guys are picking up sticks and balls and hitting them around’ . . .
“When Kabir played on TV for the first time, my uncle brought my granddad to the house and said, ‘Look at your grandson, this is exactly why we did it’ . . . In our culture, it’s like the granddad has the final say. He [said]: ‘OK, now nobody can ever say anything to you guys about playing cricket.’ ”
Ali sips from a bottle of water, having finished his meal. I ask him about his favourite moments in the game. A few come to mind. Scoring his maiden Test century in just his second match for England in 2014. Taking a “hat-trick” — getting three batsmen out in consecutive deliveries — to complete a famous victory against South Africa in 2017.
He’s reluctant to indulge in too much nostalgia, though. Over recent years “I sort of fell out of love with the game a bit,” he says. The peripatetic existence of a cricketer became a grind. The sport requires dry conditions, leading players to chase the summer sun across the planet. Ali spent months away from his wife and two young children.
Then there is the constant scrutiny of international sport: the barbs of television pundits; the abuse on social media. Ali recounts an incident during the World Cup. In an important match against Sri Lanka, his colleagues struggled to bat in the dynamic, high-scoring style that led to the team being considered pre-tournament favourites. Ali got out attempting to smash the ball for six. England lost the match. He was not selected for the rest of the tournament.
“I didn’t feel as valued as the other [England players] — mainly by the public and also maybe by the team to some extent,” he says.
“I let everything get to me as well for the first time . . . I was tired. I didn’t want to train as much. I got to games where I did not want to play. That’s a horrible, horrible space to be in.”
Cricketers appear especially exposed to mental-health issues: players including Jonathan Trott and Marcus Trescothick stopped playing for the national side due to stress-related conditions. Though a team sport, the game is made up of a series of isolated duels. After one error causing the loss of your wicket, hours can be spent in the field observing action without participating.
Ali says he was suffering from such “burnout”, and that he was “happy to be dropped” during last year’s Ashes series. After that, he removed himself from selection for the England Test side.
Is there something about the game that preys on the mind? Ali reckons elite cricketers, who rise through a formidable belief in their talent, are exposed by the game’s variables. “Where you’re batting could make a difference,” he says. “When you come on to bowl could make a big difference. There’s so much that you’re not really in control of . . .
“I think all [players] have probably been through it at some stage, probably even worse . . . I’m sure this pandemic, to a certain extent, was good for the players in terms of just refreshing and having a break.”
That break has gone on long enough, he says. Ali wants to return — if selected — to the Test side. Yet he does not know when he will lift his bat or twirl a ball again. As we bid farewell, I look forward to better days, when Ali is back on the pitch.
“Inshallah,” he says. God willing.
Murad Ahmed is the FT’s sports editor
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