WEBDESK: Ali had not been frequenting the Bull Ring’s food court, as it is Ramadan and he is fasting, so not even water, despite playing a Twenty20 match for Worcestershire that evening. He will fast during the Ashes, too, although the travel from his Birmingham home allows him to break the obligation on match days. Ali knows his life choices can appear very other, which is why he will always answer questions on his faith and its motives.
‘I’d never go up to somebody and start preaching,’ he says, ‘but if somebody asks I’m willing to talk about it. Often, after people have seen me praying, they’ll ask and it’s a chance to show how normal prayer time is and why we do it, to teach people about the religion. Not to try to change them, but to explain.
‘I saw the story about the two fans praying at Anfield during a Liverpool game. It caused a big fuss, but it was just five minutes in their life. Once you explain it to people, they are very accommodating. Once your team-mates know, once they understand you and you understand them, everybody gets along.’
Ali often uses his support for Liverpool to break the dressing-room ice, normalising his presence and appearance. His quest beyond cricket is to place what seems foreign, or even threatening to western eyes, in the mainstream. He wants to be the friendly face of that Taliban beard.
‘I know people aren’t sure about men who look like I do,’ he said. ‘People don’t see the beard as a bit of hair. I’ve been shouted at, called some horrible names, and when I first came to Worcester I noticed people crossing the road to avoid me. So, yes, there are a lot of bad Muslims giving us a bad name, but all I would say is that it isn’t just Muslims who need to change. There are a lot of ignorant people, too.
‘I hope what people see in me is that I’m a normal guy, and that people who look as I do can do normal things. And people don’t see us as normal at times. We still chuckle as people do, we still drink a cup of tea, but we feel alienated. I hope I can change that, so even if I can make one person think, “You know, Muslims are all right, they’re good people”, then I’ve done a decent job.’
Nine days earlier Dylann Roof had opened fire on the congregation of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, North Carolina. Roof had widely been described as a madman, not a terrorist.
‘The media portrayal is very bad sometimes,’ said Ali. ‘If there is a shooting and it’s a white guy, he’s mentally ill. If it’s an Asian, he’s a terrorist. The image is frustrating. In Charleston, it was clearly about race but also mental illness.
‘If that was a Muslim guy, it would be about faith and terrorism, with no mention of mental illness, even though the two probably also go together in that case. So, yes, there are Muslims who need to change and behave, but it also feels unfair because the media aren’t always straight about it.’
Ali was born Muslim but did not class himself as such until an epiphany in his later teenage years. ‘I was just a normal teenager, going out with my friends, enjoying my time. I didn’t really believe in anything, I didn’t fast or pray,’ he said.
‘Through cricket, however, I had many questions. I did a lot of travelling from a young age, got to speak to a lot of people. Whenever I travelled, wherever I went I used to look around at the countryside, look up at the sky, and think, “Someone must have created all of this — it couldn’t happen just by chance”.
‘I was only 18 but I’d had enough of going out, being a teenager. I started to realise a few things, ask deeper questions about life, searching for the truth. I wanted answers.’
Ali’s quest drove him to consider many spiritual paths. ‘I read a lot of books about other faiths and philosophies of life and came back to being a Muslim,’ he continues
‘Then one day, I was playing for Warwickshire against West Indies A and I saw a guy I knew in the crowd. He wasn’t a close friend — he is now — but he was a big West Indies fan, from Aston in Birmingham. I knew I had to speak to him. He wasn’t Pakistani or Indian. He was what we call a revert: someone who has converted from another religion. He used to be Christian, now he was Muslim.
‘I just went over and started talking to him. The first question I asked was: Why? Why did he change? I said there were certain things about being a Muslim that I didn’t like. Arranged marriages. That didn’t seem very religious. He told me that those problems were with Pakistani culture, not the Muslim faith — they were different things. I had more questions, and he answered them. Once he started explaining, it all made more sense.
‘There are things we do in our culture that are the opposite of what the religion states.’
The incongruity is that in the single-minded world of elite sport, faith should be a hindrance. The realisation that victory isn’t, after all, a matter of life and death should curb the insane levels of commitment and desire required for success.
‘My upbringing, everything was always about cricket,’ Ali explains. ‘Wake up, cricket. After school, cricket. Before I go to sleep, cricket. I was trying so hard to be the best I could, obsessing about it all the time and putting everything on it. Then, when I took a step back from it, I became a better player.
Ali’s experience suggests the opposite. Understanding the comparative insignificance of his occupation, he says, allowed him to become a better cricketer as well as a good Muslim.
‘At first, it almost felt like I had turned my back — but that was when I hit form, became more consistent and got in the England team. I stopped getting too happy when I succeeded and too down when I failed. I achieved a better balance.
‘It took me a bit of time to work out that cricket is just a game somebody has made up. When I die, nobody is going to ask me how many hundreds I got, or how many five-fors. Realising that took the pressure off me completely. If I know I have given everything, then I’m not too fussed about the result.
‘The Ashes is such a big thing to everybody else. To me, too, obviously, but I’m trying not to make it so. I’ve got to think of it as just another game of cricket. That’s tough when everybody is talking about it but if I’m going to be successful I can’t get caught up in that. I’ve got to tell myself people make it bigger than it really is.
‘I pray five times a day. That’s my faith. We pray here at Worcestershire. When we’ve had Pakistani players here, we pray together. I’m not scared of praying anywhere. During England games, I pray too. Yet when I first came to Worcester it was a little difficult, because I was 12th man and I didn’t have a spot in the dressing room. I remember Graeme knew me, and knew this was a problem for me, so he moved his bags so I had room to pray.
The clue to Ali’s resolve as a sportsman is perhaps in that aside about familial rivalry. The calm he found later in life was not reflected in his younger years in a fiercely competitive Asian community, with a father who gave up his job as a psychiatric nurse to coach his sons, convinced they would become professional cricketers.
Munir Ali’s brother gave up being a butcher too, working on his protege, and all three boys realised their chosen destiny (Moeen’s brother Kadeer with Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Leicestershire, cousin Kabir with Worcestershire, Hampshire, Lancashire and, briefly, England).
Ali’s schooldays are the stereotypical Asian experience in reverse, education abandoned at 14 to focus solely on sport. ‘Give me two years,’ his father said.
‘I got into the Warwickshire Under 11 team at nine,’ Ali recalled. ‘I was a seam bowler who batted a bit, and had never played with a real ball before. I didn’t have pads so borrowed some from Naqaash Tahir’s brother — and they were probably as big as me. I didn’t have shoes either until my dad borrowed a pair the night before.
We always had to grow into our trousers or shirts. They were massive because they had to last a long time. There were three of us from the area in my age group and we wouldn’t have £2 between the two families.
These days, Munir Ali runs his own cricket academy in Sparkhill, Birmingham. He is sometimes too busy with the next generation to watch his son, although he would no doubt admire Moeen’s work ethic during Ramadan. He can play the Ashes, and fast.