Munir Ali remembers sitting down his 15-year old son for some home truths. “Give me two years of your life. I will give you the rest of life. You are unique, you are better than anyone else.” Moeen would say, ‘no questions about my academics? “No, don’t worry. It’s going to be just cricket for you.” A Test cricketer was born. Only, it wasn’t as simple as that. If not for the father Munir and his uncle’s sacrifices, it’s difficult to see how Moeen could have played for England. Munir fought with establishment at Warwickshire, he pushed the coaches, he left his job to take his boys around for games, took psychology lessons and cricket coaching levels – basically a life devoted to sons and the game.
As the chat progresses in his home, it’s the big expressive eyes that you notice, shifting from joy to pain associated with his memories. But at the start you register the missing beard, the kind his son, Moeen, has. Munir’s mother was English and it was only a few years back, when Moeen turned 19 and embraced Islam that religion entered Munir’s headspace.
It was a West Indian who initiated Moeen’s faith. “There was a West Indian supporter Wally who used to follow young Moeen’s game, and he taught Moeen about Islam,” says Munir. His other son Kadeer, who also played county cricket, takes the story further. It was the month of Ramadan and Kadeer was worried about Moeen, “a fiery little bugger”. “His friends weren’t disciplined, they were not bad guys but you know, I thought Moeen was wasting his talent. That’s why I was happy to see the change. He wasn’t a calm boy, growing up, but as he has gotten older and deeper into religion, he has grown a lot calmer. It has had a great effect on his cricket, and life. By that Ramadan, almost overnight, he was a different man.”
It wasn’t an easy journey, though. Munir remembers sitting at the ground at Worcester when Moeen walked out to bat. A loud voiced boomed out from the crowd, “Shave off the beard!”. Munir had already been hearing the murmurs in English cricket about Moeen’s faith.
“Even some coaches. They would gently tell you, ‘look, this is England, think about that beard.’ I got worried and went to Moeen who clearly told me that this was him. He wasn’t going to bother about the criticism. It wasn’t easy of course. Once, on a developmental tour to India, the coach (I am not going to name him) told him to trim the beard. Moeen told him, ‘I will leave cricket today but will not leave my belief and this is my belief. If I play, I will play with what I am. He didn’t play a single match there. End of tour, they asked Moeen what he learnt from tour, he said, ‘nothing, just net practice, I could have done it in England. Everyone else played but he wasn’t played and he knew it was because of beard.”
Munir was worried but Moeen came back and piled up the performances in County and he was back in the fold of English cricket. Things began to change for better.
In the past, Moeen has talked about how Graeme Hick once cleared all his kitbag from the dressing room in Taunton so that he could do his namaaz. In July 2014, in a Test match against India, Moeen wore wristbands read “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine” while batting. He has helped in raising funds for Gaza relief efforts in his home city.
“Was I surprised? Kadeer says, “Let me just say that he did what he believed in. I don’t think he expected it to blow up big as it did.”
It was back pain that Moeen must thank for his transformation into an offspinner. He was a fast bowler and had even got into Worchestershire second teams for his ability to bowl pace and his batting of course. One day when he was 14, with the back niggle restricting him, Munir went up to a coach Steve Perriman to let his son just bat. Then, as a passing remark, he added, “Have you seen him bowl off spin?” No, he doesn’t bowl. “Oh yes, I have seen, he has a good action.” Perriman turned to Moeen, who said he bowls it occasionally. “Steve took a box with six balls and gave it to Moeen. It was an indoors net, there were no batsmen, and Moeen bowled four balls. Steve walked over and told him, “that’s it. No more fast bowling for you. With that action, you can play for England one day as an off-spinner.”
At every cricketing turn of Moeen, his father has been at ever-present. The cricketing dream of Munir had started when Kabir Ali, his twin brother’s son who has played for England, started to show great talent as a kid. “As Kabir started to progress through junior cricket, my brother and I started to understand how the system works. I wanted my sons to play the game and along with Kabir, we were hoping at least one or two can go all the way.”
Munir’s brother had a decent-sized garden at his home, and the brothers dug it up to prepare a pitch. Then they shelled out 3000 pounds (It was 1996 and huge money for us) to buy a bowling machine. They used to hire nets sessions at Edgbaston for the kids; now they could home school them at cricket. The rest of the family weren’t happy. “They thought we had gone balmy.” Munir’s father in particular wasn’t chuffed. “He would curse and swear, saying we were wasting the kids’ lives.”
Munir’s father had come to England in the 1940’s from Mirpur in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. He had sent the twins, 18 to 20 months old, back to Pakistan for education. Only at the age of 10, did they come back to England.
Though he couldn’t play serious cricket, he could never be kept away from the game. Munir would further enrage his father when he quit his job as male nurse so that he could fery his sons for cricket in the summer and spend all his time on the field. At some point, he rejoined his job, at a nursing home. This time, he managed the summer rota better, resulting in more time for his kids. “I remember my father didn’t have 10 pounds for petrol once. We were on the road then, he spent all his money on petrol, and was left with one pound with which he bought some bread for the family,” Kadeer says.
Once, on his way to drop Kadeer at some game, Munir felt a pain in the heart. He had worked the last two days at the hospital. “There were three deaths at the hospital, so I had no sleep. Next morning I somehow managed to drop Kadeer, and drove to hospital.” He didn’t leave the bed for the next week. “It was an angio-attack and I was bedridden.”
Moeen’s cricketing dream might have been seriously hurt for the worst when he was hit by a car at the age of 13. It wasn’t an accident but a mindless hate attack that leaves Munir enraged even in recounting it now. Munir was waiting around the bend from school to pick up Moeen for practice when he got a call from a shopkeeper. “Moeen has been hit by a car.” I rushed to find his leg bleeding. I thought it was broken. I ask him what happened and he tells me that this man was trying to kill him.” Apparently, Moeen was walking just behind two girls from his school, when a young man said something to the girls who walked away.
Thinking Moeen was with them, the enraged youth revved his car and hit Moeen, who fell into the bush. “I ask that guy why did he do that, and he goes, ‘He is lucky to be alive. I wanted to kill him.’ When he said kill, I lost it. I punched his face, and began to beat him when the police arrived. And I remember telling, ‘If I was trying to kill your son, what would you do officer?’.” He was allowed to go, and Moeen was taken to the hospital. “He was limping for quite a while, but we never stopped the practice! We shifted to catching and stuff.” Oh well.
It hasn’t been all painful memories of course. A banter with a friend over the abilities of their respective sons’ cricketing skills leads to this amusing story. “His son Zeeshan was a left-arm spinner who had taken wickets in the previous game. He was coached by his father on how to bowl to Moeen. I told Moeen, ‘Mera parda rakh! (Keep my respect). Whatever you do, don’t get out to him’. He said, ‘relax, don’t worry dad’. His team scored 245 and Moeen was 195 not out. After two good overs, Zeeshan finished with 4/60.” Laughter fills the air.
The Moeen flip book moves to his debut. Munir was emotional and all Kadeer could mumble out was, “You have made us proud, Moeen.” Munir remembers being a nervous wreck at the stadium, sitting with his wife, sons and daughter. England lose four wickets when his daughter said, “Dad, Moeen is coming out.” Munir put his head down. “I couldn’t see. I didn’t even see the start.” All those years of sweat and sacrifice for this moment but he just couldn’t look up. “There was a big roar and I looked up at the big screen to see the ball racing to the boundary.” Only after a while, did he start watching his son. “I was so nervous that my hands and leg were shaking, and I accidentally bumped my foot against a lady next to me. She said, “Are you nervous, Mr Ali? I too was. I look up at her and she says, “I am Gary Balance’s mom.”
Moeen hit 48 and Munir was a bit disappointed about the fifty. “Two more runs! I was greedy but I was so so happy that my son was now playing international cricket for England. My dream had come true.”
That dream is under a bit of cloud now. A bad Ashes performance where he played through “side strain that prevented him from pivoting properly and a fracture in fingers that were glued together” has meant he has been in and out under Joe Root’s captaincy. With Ben Stokes’s absence due to the ongoing trial for the night-club incident, it remains to be seen whether Moeen gets one more chance. “Moeen is calm as ever.” Munir is the one who is restless. Very restless.