England's entertaining spin

The English spinners are capable of anything, good and bad.

The batsman is gardening on the line he expects the spinner to land. Behind him the wicketkeeper is shadow keeping. It's the bowler's first delivery in the country. The batsman is experienced and has a reputation for being good against spin. He's captained his team and faced 35,000 balls in his career as a pro. He knows that this bowler can spin it a bit, so he prepares for that.

The delivery drifts in a bit, the batsman sees that and plays for it, and then it hits the first day surface, and rips violently. The batsman has played a reasonable shot. But the ball hasn't played fair. The commentator says, "And he's done it. He's started off with the most beautiful delivery."

The batsman stares at the wicket. When that doesn't give him an answer he turns towards the square leg umpire. Richie Benaud is the commentator, and he continues "(Mike) Gatting has absolutely no idea what has happened to it." Benaud pauses, "He still doesn't know".

Virat Kohli's ball from Moeen Ali today was not as surprising as Shane Warne's first ball to Mike Gatting. Obviously.

When you see a puff of dust on the fifth ball you know there is going to be some fun on this pitch. But there is a lot about English spin that makes all this so fascinating. I've been keeping a database on Dom Bess in recent times. Because he is an interesting cricketer.

The first place I started with is Cricviz, while everyone else wanted to know Dom Bess expected averages (in Sri Lanka, they said his deliveries should have netted seven wickets at 35.9, but he took 12 at 21.25). But while that was interesting, what I wanted to know is how often he bowls full tosses.

They told me of finger spinners in their database to have bowled 2000 balls, only Sulieman Benn and Marlon Samuels delivered more full tosses per ball. Benn is 200 centimetres tall, and you would assume he had to bowl a fuller length than most normal heighted spinners. Samuels was a part-timer who averaged 59 with the ball. That is not the company you want to be with.

And Bess' problems with length aren't just from the bunch of full tosses he bowled in the second innings to Virat Kohli. In the first innings, even as he took wickets, he struggled with his length. It's something I've talked about a lot on talkSPORT. He bowls an excellent line, he can spin the ball, and can get bounce. But he never quite seems in control of the length.

Here are the three off spinners from the first innings of the first Test against the right handers.

You can see that not only is Bess the fullest of the offies, he's also the shortest. Sundar is less experienced than Bess, and taller, so you'd expect him to bowl slightly fuller.

And this is them to left handers, where Bess looks even more messy. That is where all three should have a tactical advantage spinning the ball away from the bat.

It's also worth noting just how accurate Ravichandran Ashwin is. He rarely bowls full tosses according to Cricviz, and these maps show how much he can drop the ball exactly where he wants. But Ashwin is so in charge of what he does, that he can vary it up a bit. Nathan Lyon is the most accurate off spinner around.

Yeah, drink that in. It is tough to be a successful finger spinner, especially if you don't have control of your line and length, some wrist spinners can get away with it, but fingers spinners are supposed to keep the pressure on, that is hard when you're bowling regular loose balls.

Now if you're trying to remember Bess' recent form now that he has been dropped, he's taken 17 wickets for 22 runs in his last three Tests. But it's worth going back to some of his wickets versus Sri Lanka. He took a wicket early on day one with a reverse sweep to slip. There's a little luck there. His next wicket was from a very short ball cut straight to point.

Then a batsman smashed a sweep shot into Jonny Bairstow's arse. It bounces up in the air and they took the catch.

And then he delivered a half volley that was missed completely.

That is an extraordinarily lucky spell of bowling to have happened in Test cricket. And in the first innings of the first Test against India, Bess took four wickets, and two of them were amazingly lucky. The first was Ajinkya Rahane's wicket.

So it's a full toss, and a low one, and somehow Rahane scoops it up - which is Bess' first element of luck.

That was a fantastic catch. It's probably only caught 20% of the time and I can't think of many low full tosses scooped up in Tests. It's a freakish dismissal. And it wasn't even the weirdest one he took. That was when he dropped short to Pujara.

The ball drops short, Pujara gets back and makes is worse, and smashes it safely off the middle of his bat. Sadly for him, it hits the middle of Ollie Pope's back as well.

And then it reared off towards mid wicket where Rory Burns was standing. Even by Bess' fantastic standards, this was lucky, at least the one in Sri Lanka bounced into an area that always has fielders, and it wasn't a poor ball. This was a bad delivery and not a place you always have a man.

So that is six of the 17 wickets Bess has in that productive period which have come through no skill of his own. That's incredible. But in the middle of all this he also took the wicket of Virat Kohli when England needed it on day three. But in the second innings he was taken off when he couldn't land the ball to Kohli. That is where Dom Bess is, he's not a terrible bowler, his economy rate in Tests is 2.9.

All day you could see Dom Bess talking with Jeetan Patel - England's spin coach - almost every time the camera is on the balcony. Every conversation seems about something technical or tactical, like Bess is getting near ball by ball tutoring from Patel. Bess is young for a spinner, and he's not a complete Test bowler yet.

England have three frontline spinners, and they're all limited. That doesn't mean they can't take wickets, or be very handy in the future. But they don't have a locked-in spinner.

Jack Leach has some elite skills, and he's averaging just over 30. He's a quality bowler, but one with very extreme limitations.

He is extraordinary when playing at home for Somerset. And remember that pitch spins so much it has created 66% of England's top three spin options. Even as the ECB fine them for pitches that spin too much. They call Taunton Ciderbad.

While it has helped his confidence and skill, he struggles when the pitch is flatter. And being away from Taunton, he's struggled with the first innings at Test level.

But there are other problems like his left handed issue, he really struggles against in Tests.

And because of that, they score off him easily.

They have no fear of him at all, and he hasn't put any pressure on them. Again, this doesn't make Leach a bad bowler, he's brilliant when it spins against right handers, and for a spinner, that's a pretty handy thing to be good at. But the limitations cause other problems. You can't just plug and play him, like you would with many spinners around the world.

And he's had other issues, England turned him into a cult figure in 2019 when he won two Tests with the bat. But his limitations were shown up when he was in New Zealand and a pitch not turning clashed with Mitchell Santner's left handedness. He then gets very sick in South Africa, when he is most definitely not going to play. When he finally recovers, he becomes a non-playing bubble guy. Finally, he gets out on the field and Sri Lankan batsmen are trying to make Bess look like the frontline spinner. Add to that Rishabh Pant trying to end his career, and it's been a weird couple of years for the bloke who became a legend with a single.

At the other end was Moeen Ali who replaced Dom Bess. And this happened.

Sadly it wasn't the only full toss, Moeen bowled seven of them, and some drag downs as well. This is what you would expect for a bowler who has played two first class matches since his last Test in 2019.

But going for runs - today he went at 4.3 an over - is something that Moeen does. Here is a list of all the bowlers in the last ten years to take 100 wickets by average and runs per over.

Most of the non-elite off spinners in the world end up with poor bowling averages over time, but Moeen pairs that with the worst economy rate. There is no one else like him out there. And remember, he was a batsman and part-time bowler for the first six years of his professional career. He only bowled frontline spin overs in 2012, by 2014 he was in the Test team.

That he has taken 183 wickets is amazing, but that doesn't mean he is an incredible bowler. He's an average bowler who occasionally delivers incredible balls.

Today Moeen bowled a stunning first innings ball outside off stump that turned and bit as Virat Kohli - who had reportedly never made a duck when dismissed by a spinner - tried to drive through the gap. It wasn't like the Gatting/Warne ball. It didn't drift, was an off spinner, while Kohli and Moeen were teammates at RCB. And yet when the ball bowls him, he looks as surprised as Gatting was all those years before. He asks the umpires to check he was actually bowled, it's not an official review, but more a confused enquiry.

Virat Kohli was not right to be surprised, English spinners have flaws, and produce many poor balls, but they also do this. It doesn't make them consistently good; it makes them very entertaining.