Patience is the key while Bess learns his trade on the job
➤ England encouraged by the progress spinner is making as he builds experience to carve out a place in the Test arena
Dom Bess has played every Test this summer, and yet spent much of it with the air of a man stuck on a phoneline listening to the callwaiting music, awaiting his turn.
In England’s five preceding Tests, he had bowled only 97 overs.
Twice, he went through a whole Test without bowling a solitary ball.
In part, this has reflected how most Tests have been played in seam-friendly conditions. But it has also reflected how all seven of the seamers picked by England this summer, including Ben Stokes, average at least five under Bess’s current 37. It is hardly surprising that Bess has, at times, felt like England’s weapon of last resort.
Yet while previous England regimes would have either recalled Jack Leach or deployed an all-seam attack, England have retained Bess throughout.
His selection is in keeping with a wider generational shift in the England side: for all the focus upon James Anderson and Stuart Broad, eight members of this XI are under 30.
No one disputes that Bess is a work-in-progress. A month after turning 23, how could he not be? Especially for a conventional off-spinner – an art that depends on subtle variations in flight, line, length and simply metronomic consistency – he is simply extraordinarily young in his career. Graeme Swann is sometimes held up as the model of what Bess could be: an orthodox off-spinner who, in lieu of mystery, thrived with flight, an aggressive line and a simple zest for the fight. So it is particularly instructive to compare his experience with that of Swann’s at the time of his Test debut. When first selected for Test cricket, Swann had delivered 4,741.3 overs in first-class cricket – ample time to make mistakes and hone his craft. The years of toil and maturity meant that Swann arrived in Test cricket almost fully formed. Now consider Bess (left). He had bowled only 477.5 overs in firstclass cricket at the time of his Test debut two years ago – 10 per cent as many as Swann. Even now, Bess has only just nudged past 1,200 first-class overs.
“For me it’s learning on the job,” Bess admitted after the third day. “Learning what to do for the side in terms of my role – obviously first innings try and contain and hopefully, as the pitch breaks up a little bit more, I come into the game a bit more.” Bess’s very selection is part endorsement of his ability, part investment. It is one based on his evident relish for the tussle of Test cricket, his optimistic demeanour as an off-spinner and his penchant for self-improvement: since working with Rangana Herath and Jeetan Patel last year, he has begun to acquire greater pace and bounce. Given the presence of Anderson, Broad and Jofra Archer, Bess’s batting – he has a neat game and now boasts a Test average of 28 – is also a significant fillip.
“I love it, I love learning, it’s a great challenge,” Bess said. “It’s challenging myself, seeing where I am at the moment.”
But, however admirable this attitude, it is as a Test bowler that Bess will ultimately be judged. The third day at the Ageas Bowl afforded Bess an overdue chance of an extended bowl and, thanks to England’s gargantuan total, an invitation to go on the attack.
On a pitch which did not offer appreciable turn, Bess’s one for 68 from 18 overs offered plenty of encouragement.
He showcased his adaptability – adjusting between a more aggressive line outside off stump and a more defensive line from round the wicket close to the second new ball, and both bowling into and against the wind. His solitary wicket,
Fawad Alam, was reward for a fine delivery that invited the drive and turned sharply.
Bess could easily have had a second, but Yasir Shah’s edge fell between Jos Buttler and Joe Root at first slip.
Naturally, the areas to improve are obvious enough. Shane Warne believes that Bess could generate more energy from his hips, as Nathan Lyon does.
Bess must simply become more consistent: 11 per cent of his Test deliveries are full tosses, compared to Lyon’s three per cent. Experience will bring greater judgment of how to adjust to the ever-shifting demands of Test cricket.
Whether Bess is England’s best Test spinner right now remains questionable; indeed, most Somerset regulars would still vouch for Leach. But Bess has given England enough reason to believe his learning on the job will be the prelude to an altogether more substantive role in the side.
Hard-won wicket: Jos Buttler takes a tough catch to dismiss Fawad Alam off the bowling of Dom Bess – his only wicket of an 18-over stint