Watching Dom Bess

The young spinners comeback day.

Dom Bess warming up in practice is shown twice on TV to illustrate how he was bowling differently in the match. Behind him are Dan Lawrence and Dom Sibley, both looking on to see how it was going. It’s hard to know if they’re concerned or not. But they are watching on intently to what should have been a benign moment of practice. Bess is happily working on his bowling, unaware the camera or his teammates are watching on.

Right now, someone is always watching Bess.

Usually when someone gets Covid, it is them and their family that struggle the most. But in Moeen Ali’s case, his Covid has actually had the most bizarre knock-on effect to Bess. It now looks apparent the plan for England was for Moeen and Jack Leach to play the first four Tests of their Asian tour. Then have Bess come in after two months of work in the nets for the final pair. But when Moeen was ruled out of the first Test in Sri Lanka, Bess played. He took 5/30.

Without wanting to go into the weeds, it is one of the luckiest five-wicket hauls you’ll find. You can see more by clicking on the video I’ve made on it.

But everyone - Bess included - knew this was a lucky spell. But his luck didn’t stop there, he took more wickets in Sri Lanka, and he was therefore given the first Test in India.

This was a slight variation on your standard Agar conundrum. Australia picked Ashton Agar ahead of Nathan Lyon for the 2013 Ashes. Agar was clearly the inferior bowler, but made 98 batting at 11, and therefore they didn’t drop him. Essentially it means your selection is wrong, and then because of a freak event, you have to stick with it even if you’re unsure.

The thing for Bess was that his luck continued for the first Test versus India. I started calling him Domino Bess, after the Deadpool 2 character whose superpower is luck. This meant after three Tests in Asia, Bess had 17 wickets at an average of 22.

The problem was at the end of that third Test (the first against India), he had to be yanked from the attack for bowling full tosses. And this isn’t a new thing for Bess; he has always struggled with controlling his length, which isn’t that common for a Test finger spinner.

So now you have a huge issue. If you drop Bess at this point you say that despite his numbers, he’s not someone you can trust. And being that Moeen is scheduled to go home for the following Test, you risk further damaging Bess when he’ll be needed very soon.

Moeen was always the better bowler, and batter. He’s taken wickets against the Indians before, and is a former teammate of Virat Kohli. If they were unsure about Bess, it made perfect sense for Moeen to come back. Moeen bowled well on about the best surface possible for him, then went home because of their Covid rest and rotation policy.

The problem came back fast at the next selection. England said they gambled on how the pink balls had behaved at practice under the lights. But with Stokes in the team, it never made much sense to pick three other seamers and no second spinner. They were essentially saying that Bess’ problems with control were so bad he was unplayable.

Bess had gone from being chosen over Moeen and taking 4/76, including Kohli, to not landing the ball and getting benched for two ragging pitches.

This would be tough on the most seasoned pro; Bess is 23. And he’s not in control of his talents yet. For England, he’s a pick on potential and character. They believe he’s got the skills to eventually be a decent bowler who can bat, and they think he has the right attitude to make all that happen while he is in development.

It would be hard for him to be in complete control when much of his career as being the second spinner for Somerset behind Leach. Even in Ciderabad, they only bowl spin 40% of the time, meaning Bess wasn’t given the overs he needed.

And what would Bess have made of the last two Tests, where even if he bowled poorly, he probably would have taken even more wickets because of the pitches. He’s probably missed out on the two surfaces from the entire tour that would have helped him the most. Chances are he’d now have somewhere closer to 30 wickets from five Tests with an average still in the 20s.

The whole thing was so bizarre. And England had been so rattled by the last two Tests that not only did they bring Bess back in for this match, but they also dropped another bowler. Meaning the guy who was not good enough to bowl in the last two Tests with figures of 17 wickets at 22 was now in a front line attack of three. Plus insurance with Ben Stokes and Joe Root.

And if you want to know what that looks like in the mind of a spinner, Bess drew it out in the first over back.

Here there were two half trackers, one down leg, and a floaty no-ball early in the over. Not that the entire over was bad, it was just nervy.

Bess doesn’t look like he will be an accurate spinner for a while. I’ve covered it, CricViz have mentioned it, and before this Test Kartikeya Date really smashed it.

This is from his piece:

But let’s focus on this, generally if bowlers err, it’s one way-either slightly short, or slightly full. As I’ve written before, Bess is very full, the third fullest finger spinner by CricViz’s metrics since records began, and he also drops short. Axar Patel is the ideal comparison in this series. You can see he’s over pitched 0.7% of his deliveries this series. Meaning he doesn’t bowl full tosses. But he’s been short 4.9% of the time. Bess has been full 18.7% (this number is barely believable) and short 5.6% of the time. Meaning he’s fuller and shorter than Axar. I’ve picked Axar as an extreme example, but Sundar, who has played far less red ball cricket than Bess, has been quite full (9%) but rarely short (2.3%). Bess is by far the fullest, and the second shortest of the spinners.

One thing Gareth Batty has suggested on talkSPORT is that maybe we need to think of Bess as a strike bowler. Someone who can take wickets but will bowl poor balls. As a general rule, almost all finger spinners aren’t strike bowlers. But cricket is changing. It used to be that leg spinners were the strike bowlers of Tests, they now take a wicket every 65 balls. The worst of any kind of bowling. But off-spin is still only at 63, well behind SLA (59) and seam (55). But you could argue that Moeen is an off-spinning strike bowler. And not only that, but a successful one.

Moeen brings wickets and runs at a rapid rate. And while this style probably wouldn’t have worked in eras where players respected sweepers and were happy to rotate the strike. In modern cricket, batsmen rarely stop attacking, meaning Moeen is always in the game.

Like today, Rohit Sharma was facing Bess, and the absolute most obvious thing for him to do was wait for the error and cash in on a low risk boundary once every over or two. Instead, he tried to clear three deep leg-side fielders with a slog sweep that went within a couple of metres of one of them. A confident modern spinner who can hold their nerve is a good fit for the current game. Bess has shown that so far.

While not as good a bowler as Moeen, Bess still produces wicket-taking deliveries, his bounce seems to bother some players, but he has to be more in control of his bowling than he was today. On multiple occasions, it seemed like he was about to get the yips. Full tosses that wouldn’t have bounced before the keeper Ben Foakes, more short balls than usual, and one over where he struggled with line and length as his pace varied drastically between 75 and 90KPH.

It’s also true to say that Bess’ luck wasn’t in today.  Had India not lost their top order, with the way he bowled, it could have got messy. And it was Rohit that England seem to fear with Bess the most. So far in this series, he’s only delivered 29 balls to Rohit, of which there have been 22 runs.

Rohit could seriously mess him up, but that didn't happen today, so his figures were not terrible. He was comfortably the most expensive of the bowlers, and once the Indians milked him, it was a problem. He's bowled 15 overs for 56, but as almost always with Bess, the figures don’t seem to match what we saw.

His figures don’t include the byes he has bowled by firing the ball down the leg side.Nor the mishits off half trackers and full tosses. It also doesn’t have the frustration that a rare false shot from his bowling loops over the head of mid off.

Or when Bess gets a straight one on a decent length to Sundar, and begs for an LBW. Bess pleads for it, but just as he gives up hope the umpire gives it. It's reviewed and it takes almost less time than the original decision to overturn it for bat first. He pleaded and pleaded, was rewarded, and it was taken away in a heartbeat.

One thing his figures do record is the full toss he bowled to Sundar. It was high and terrible, so Sundar smashes it back at him. Almost creating a chance out of an awful delivery. Bess jumps up for the ball, and then hits the ground, only to kick at it in disgust. For someone with not that many overs, and no wickets, the camera seemed to find him all day. Chatting to Root, looking perplexed at his last ball or covered in dirt from a dive. And when they couldn’t find him, it was his spin bowling coach, Jeetan Patel, saying he’d “Not had the greatest of days”.

Steve Harmison on the radio suggested that on days like this, you look around and hear everyone talking about you. It’s clear to you you’ve let down the team. And you imagine every conversation out of earshot is about you. When you are in the middle, you can at least hide from it by being anonymous between overs, stand in the outfield, and focus on your fielding. After the day’s play, it’s just you, hotel walls and the sympathetic looks from your teammates.

This has been a mess from the start, a global pandemic that infected England’s selection and could have long term consequences for their best young spin talent. It is also very possible that Bess comes out on day three of this Test and picks up some cheap late wickets. With the tail trying to kick on, and the pitch taking some more turn, he could snatch the two left-handers. That’s how he should be thinking. But it’s also understandable if this inexperienced player isn’t in that frame of mind.

Right now, to Dom Bess, it must feel like someone is always watching him.