Manchester: Moeen Ali has become the fastest English spinner to cross the 20 wicket-mark in Test cricket, featuring in only six matches that spanned across 58 days and the `part-time` off-spinner has termed his recent performance as "crazy".
For a team that was struggling three matches ago to replace Graeme Swann, England have now completely moved on from the retired off-spinner.
"It is crazy. I never thought of it. It is still early days in my career," Ali told BBC, when he was informed of the record. "It is a great feeling winning the game for your country twice in a row. I have tried to stay as level as I can and not get too carried away. I practice hard and I feel it comes out on the field."
Swann had enjoyed a lot of success against Indian batsmen, having taken 13 wickets in four Tests during the 2011 tour and then another 20 when England toured in 2012-13. Comparatively, in four matches against India so far, Ali has already picked up 19 wickets.
He may not have completely exceeded Swann as yet, but he has exceeded expectations.
It has a meteoric rise for Ali, who has grown from being the support-bowler to Saeed Ajmal of Pakistan at Worcestershire to his country`s lead-spinner.
In the first Test at Nottingham, it almost appeared as if England didn`t have a second line of attack after James Anderson and Stuart Broad. The flat pitch there masked this belief. And they didn`t fare well enough on the green-top at Lord`s either, so nobody noticed that Ali had quietly picked up seven wickets in the first two Tests.
India failed to notice many problems in their touring set-up thanks to that euphoric 95-run win and tackling Ali was one of them.
But at Southampton they were duly found out. The Indian batsmen didn`t know whether to come forward or go back to Ali. They didn`t want to attack him because they were fighting to save the match. And when they defended, they collapsed.
The tactic was changed in the fourth Test and yet again they collapsed, this time whilst attacking. Indian batsmen are generally very good at playing spin, but this has proven to be a near-myth on this tour so far.
"I took a lot of confidence from the Lord`s game. I felt like I bowled quite well in that match. I try to bowl quicker, straighter and bowl tight so the quicker bowlers can rest up. Picking up wickets is nice and the natural variation I get, some balls spin and some don`t spin, that has helped me. The batsmen find it harder to come down the wicket then, and I can cannon it through and create a situation to pick up wicket," Ali explained.
What has further helped Ali is the fact that England have learnt to utilise his confidence in an aggressive direction, which is to target Indian batsmen and not just play him as a support bowler. Skipper Alastair Cook relied on him on day one of the Lord`s Test. It seemed a foolish ploy to many, but over the course of three Tests, this reliance on Ali to keep one end tight and attack the batsmen has borne fruit.
"Moeen has shown that international cricket is a chance to develop really fast because you are amongst better players. He is bowling against top-flight batsmen and he has adjusted accordingly. His pace has increased and with that he gets more dip and shape, and bowls tighter. The fact that he is getting top-flight players of spin out is significant. He has backed up the performance in Southampton. He has started really well and he is getting better," England coach Peter Moores had said after his side`s innings-and-54-run win in the fourth Test.
Ali`s performance has cast a shadow on the performance of the Indian spinners. Ravichandra Ashwin has played only one match in the series so far, with Ravindra Jadeja the preferred choice, and hence is under the scanner.
The left-arm all-rounder is much like Ali, professing his use of natural variation and thundering the odd-ball at higher pace to surprise the batsmen.
However, both these ploys have been negated during this series. At Nottingham, even though the pitch slowed down drastically, he was unimpressive more so against the English lower-order, going wicket-less.
Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni saw a strike-bowler in him during the second innings at Lord`s. On a pitch with variable bounce, he persisted with Jadeja for long, but that too came to nought after an initial break-through.
At Southampton, England amassed nearly 600 runs in the first innings. When that happens, figures of two for 153 in 45-plus overs are neither here nor there. He did pick up three wickets in the second innings, but then again the opposition batsmen destroyed his reputation as an economical bowler taking 4.87 runs per over off him.
At Manchester, with Ashwin preferred as the first-choice spinner by Dhoni, Jadeja`s position in the side became a riddle, considering his dim-witted batting approach.
After that loss, when asked if he had an answer to this conundrum, Dhoni replied, "The problem is who do you have to replace Jadeja? Again we will fall back on the extra batsman and not have that fifth bowler when we really need him. That is how Jadeja plays, and the more he plays the better he will get. We are hoping that it happens soon."
The fifth Test begins at the Oval on Friday. Given the pitch`s slow reputation, Jadeja will surely take the field. The skipper, too, is keen to back his player both on-the-field and off it as seen in the Anderson saga.
But in the larger scheme of things, can India really wait for Jadeja to come good when they have a series to salvage?