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Moeen Ali, England's silent warrior, gloriously walks into sunset once more

His contributions to both the feel and the narrative of Ashes feels typical of his Test career: entertaining, endearing and inconsistent

Stuart Broad and Moeen Ali walk off the pitch together for the last time  •  PA Images via Getty Images

Stuart Broad and Moeen Ali walk off the pitch together for the last time  •  PA Images via Getty Images

Ben Stokes is hidden away at the back of the home dressing room at Headingley, puffing on a cigarette. He had entered moments earlier after being caught down the leg side off Mitchell Starc. England needed 90 more runs to win the third Test and keep their Ashes hopes alive, but their talisman in these pressure situations was out.
Stokes was furious but focused on adhering to a post-dismissal routine he had refined as captain. The ethos he and head coach Brendon McCullum have cultivated relies on dressing room calm, something the Durham allrounder cedes is not his strong point after getting out. But he has developed coping mechanisms, starting with a smoke, then a systematic packing of both his cricket bags. Once that was done, he made his way to the outdoor viewing area and sat himself down next to Moeen Ali.
In the tense periods, Moeen and Stokes chatted nonsense. At one point, when the partnership between Harry Brook and Chris Woakes was swelling, Moeen commented about how easily they were winning this. Stokes, speaking from experience, reminded him "there is always a twist", which duly came when Brook was dismissed. Moeen congratulated his skipper on the call, before Woakes and Mark Wood eventually saw things home.
Stokes regarded the spot next to Moeen as his best way of keeping the tension to a minimum. It is largely in keeping with the 36-year-old's presence in the set-up outright, which has been seen as a success behind closed doors.
Both Stokes and McCullum made moves to get him out of retirement last summer, specifically for the Pakistan series later that winter, believing his attacking verve with bat and ball fit the set-up perfectly. They also believed his laidback demeanour, allied with his reading of the game, would boost an already positive group.
It was only when Jack Leach was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the back on the eve of the series that Stokes made a second approach. Having worked on Moeen's appetite for a return this summer during their IPL stint together for Chennai Super Kings, he dropped him a text to ask if he was up for it - "Ashes?". He was.
Seven weeks on, Moeen walks into the sunset once more. His contributions to both the feel and the narrative of an engaging series typical of his Test career. Entertaining, endearing, inconsistent and, at times, infuriating.
A wound to his spinning finger reopened because it had been a while since he had bowled with a Dukes ball, and then a fan sent him a jar of medical honey which accelerated its healing. When Ollie Pope was ruled out with a shoulder injury, Moeen approached Stokes and McCullum on the penultimate evening of the third Test and asked to bat three in the fourth innings. He wanted to put his mark on the series and protect Brook, who moved back to five, and produced a vital 75 in pursuit of the target of 251.
Half-century number 15 in Manchester - only his second at No.3 - came during a thrilling stand of 121 with centurion Zak Crawley. Moeen was ranking their shots while out in the middle, giving himself the "shot of the day" tag for a glorious cover drive off Pat Cummins. Having hurt his abductor while batting in the first innings at the Oval, he decided to tee off as he could not run, and carted Cummins into the stands over square leg. He then closed it all out with 3 for 76 on the last day of his 68th and final Test to help England to a series-squaring victory.
There are the other bits that don't really matter but are worth a mention. The constant arguments with Crawley greatly amused the rest of the team. One of them being which part of the country was best at Twenty20 cricket. Crawley ultimately won that one when all four T20 Blast Finals Day teams came from the south group. He is also revered as the slickest bucket hat wearer going, rocking it with the brim turned up, like a turquoise trilby. A few players tried to copy him but couldn't quite nail the look.
This series has been as much about Moeen the vibesman as Moeen the allrounder. At the end of the match, Stokes stated he wanted Moeen "because I know what he can do on his best days". The last day of the Ashes was exactly that.
As for the others, well it's a hard one to square. His nine dismissals were big ones - Travis Head (three times), Marnus Labuschagne (twice), Mitchell Marsh and Steve Smith who he might have had twice had Stokes not botched a catch at leg sip on that final day. But the average of 51.44 reflects the lack of control, likewise the 180 runs at an average of 25.17. At the same time, he brought balance by covering for the loss of spinner and number three. A selfless, up-and-down career ends with a quietly impressive 3,094 runs and 204 wickets.
When Stokes sent that message in June, Moeen immediately replied "lol". And while lols were had, Moeen reflected he was not wholly pleased with how things went, but satisfied this Ashes and his career climaxed with a thrilling finale. Ultimately, he was grateful to himself for accepting the SOS call. He would have regretted it later in life had he not.
At the end of the match, Stuart Broad insisted Moeen shared the ovation of their final Test. Broad had alerted the world a couple of nights before that this would be it. With Moeen, it felt like we knew all along.
"I was a little bit embarrassed to be walking off with a great," he said of leading the team off with Broad. "It proves the man he is. I didn't want to do it and he said I had to.
"I was really reluctant, but it was great. You have mates and build relationships and Broady is one of those guys. From the start, he was always amazing with me. I've always got on well with him and really pleased he's finished the way he has."
With the deserved fanfare around Broad and the perfect ending for one of England's greatest fast bowlers, you wonder whether Moeen got any closure from this last dance. Or whether he even needed it beyond a more pleasing conclusion after slinking away two years ago with little cause or opportunity for celebration.
"When I played a few nice shots I thought, 'I can still bat'," he said. "I would have loved to get some more, but it was a great challenge. White ball is great, I love the [franchise] leagues. But there is nothing better than playing against the best attack with a new ball in their hand. It's a challenge. It's nice to finish knowing that [I can still bat], it was decent.
"The bowling was always a fight," he admitted. However, the challenge of a final day in the field appealed to him even while crocked, particularly at the ground where he spun England to victory against South Africa with a hat-trick. As it happens, his fourth innings strike rate of 40.2 is better than those of Shane Warne or Graeme Swann.
"Maybe it's because I'm a spinner [that fourth innings appeal to him] but I've never felt like a proper spinner like those guys. I don't overthink bowling on the last day. It's ragging so I'll try to get it spinning as much as I can, through the gate, try to nick the lefties off.
"The encouragement I got from Baz and Stokesy to go and bowl my best ball, through the gate and things like that. I think that brings the best out of me. My bowling has always been up and down, but one thing I do know is that I've always loved bowling in the fourth innings."
"White ball is great, I love the [franchise] leagues. But there is nothing better than playing against the best attack with a new ball in their hand"
Mooen Ali
If anything, it seems this Ashes was a combination of things Moeen got to enjoy one last time. Challenging himself against an accomplished pace attack, sending down a few magical deliveries, and ribbing his team-mates. Fitting given how English cricket has experienced Moeen since debuting in 2014.
His inconsistency is part of the thrill. Even in a barrage, he could hook one for six, or when the game is at its most tense, produce a surface-busting off break. Moments of joy and relief out of nowhere, making the top edges when things have calmed down and full tosses a little more palatable. Perhaps not for some, but as all corners of the Kia Oval rose to a rendition of "Stand up if you love Moeen" prior to his penultimate over in Test cricket, it is clear he occupies a unique place in the hearts of most.
When he retired at the end of the 2021 summer, his father Munir, was dismayed his son finished tantalisingly short of milestones, on 2,914 runs and 195 dismissals. He was as ecstatic as anyone when Moeen decided to return.
"As soon as I got that milestone, my dad checked out," laughed Moeen. "He wants me to do well, but he checked out - he was just buzzing. That was the one thing in his head more than anything. Things happen for a reason, and it was meant to be."
Gratification in the joy he brings others. Selfless to the cause of the team. Two traits synonymous with Moeen which he underlined over the last seven weeks.
The career averages probably mean history will not be kind to quantifying what Moeen Ali truly was as a Test cricketer. But at least England fans and his team-mates could experience him one last time.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo