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India v England

Dom Bess bears the brunt of years of spin mismanagement

Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 5 minute read

After Dom Bess played significant roles in three consecutive wins at the start of the tour, few would have imagined that his winter would end on such a low ebb.

In the must-win series finale where England opted for just four frontline bowlers rather than their usual five, Bess struggled for any sort of consistency; here was a 23-year-old still learning his game going through an inevitable dip in form when it mattered most.

That sparky ‘up-and-at-em’ demeanour has endeared Bess to England supporters and he has, in spite of his current limitations as a spinner, made positive contributions with either bat or ball in nearly every Test he’s played in.

But given the way he bowled earlier in the series, should he really have been playing? Really, what we saw in Ahmedabad was the unfortunate consequence of years of muddled management and misfortune with the health and fitness of England’s spinners that charts back to the beginning of Ed Smith’s tenure as national selector.

Without the presence of an undisputed number one spinner, England have jumped between the less-than-ideal options at their disposal; Moeen Ali, originally picked in Test cricket as a batsman, Jack Leach, a relatively late bloomer who has struggled with illness, Bess, Leach’s less experienced partner-in-crime at Somerset and Adil Rashid, their gun white-ball match-winner who, for one reason or another, has rarely had a prolonged stint in red-ball cricket.

May 2018: Bess debuts, Moeen dropped, Leach injured

Bess is a surprise inclusion in Ed Smith’s first Test squad. With Leach injured just one Test into his career, his Somerset teammate – very much his No.2 at county level and with just 16 first-class appearances to his name – is thrust into the spotlight. Moeen, who was dropped after the New Zealand tour, and Liam Dawson, who played two Tests in 2017 and averaged 26 with the ball in that year’s County Championship, are both left out.

July 2018: Rashid returns

Smith makes perhaps the most controversial decision of his tenure by recalling Adil Rashid despite the leg-spinner opting out of first-class cricket for Yorkshire. In a team stacked with all-rounders, Rashid was only sporadically called upon but took his wickets at around 30 in an impressive 4-1 win against India.

August 2018: Moeen returns

After a double-hundred and six-for in the same game for Worcestershire, Moeen is recalled to the side alongside Rashid for the fourth India Test. He takes nine wickets in the match in the Ageas Bowl.

October 2018: Spin trio combine in Sri Lanka

The peak of England’s spin fortunes in recent years. Rashid, Leach and Moeen combine brilliantly to dominate England’s 3-0 series win in Sri Lanka, taking 48 of the 60 Sri Lankan wickets to fall.

January 2019: England revert to one spinner

After a chastening defeat in the opening Test of the subsequent tour to West Indies, Rashid is dropped with Moeen reclaiming his spot as the side’s first-choice spinner.

August 2019: Moeen discarded, Leach takes his chance

Despite being Test cricket’s leading wicket-taker over the preceding 12 months, Moeen is dropped after a poor game in the Ashes opener at Edgbaston. His replacement, Leach, does well, taking 12 wickets at 25.83 and, as well as his Headingley heroics, takes an important final day four-for at The Oval in England’s series-levelling victory.

September 2019: Moeen loses his contract

Shortly after that Ashes series, Moeen loses his Test contract with the ECB. A highly sought-after white-ball cricketer, few begrudge Moeen as he decides to take a break from Test cricket, freeing him up to take part in T20 competitions that winter, in part to make up for his loss of earnings from his Test contract. Moeen takes part in that year’s Abu Dhabi T10 which is held at the same time as England’s Test tour of New Zealand

November 2019: Leach dropped after one Test, contracts illness

Just one Test after an impressive Ashes series, Leach is dropped after England’s heavy defeat at Mount Maunganui. England to go into the Hamilton Test without a frontline spinner; Leach later contracts gastroenteritis and spends two nights in hospital.

January 2020: Bess back in the frame

After defeat in the opening Test of the South Africa tour where they again went in without a frontline spinner, Bess is recalled to the XI after 18 months out of the side. Bess, a late addition to the squad, leapfrogs Matt Parkinson – who was expensive in one of the warm-up games – in the pecking order having impressed during a spin-bowling training camp in India earlier that winter. He performs well across his three Tests with his first-innings 5-51 at Port Elizabeth the standout performance.

July 2020: Bess retained post-lockdown

To his credit, Bess out-bowls Moeen and Leach in the intra-squad warm-up game that precedes the home West Indies series. Bess plays all six home Tests, taking his wickets at over 50 runs apiece. Bess is left out of the Somerset side at the expense of Jack Leach for two crunch Bob Willis Trophy games and announces his move to Yorkshire for the 2021 season towards the end of the summer. Leach spends most of the Test summer carrying drinks, while Moeen is part of the separate white-ball set-up.

January 2021: Moeen tests positive for COVID-19

Out of the Test arena for over a year and without a first-class game since 2019, Moeen is recalled for the Sri Lanka series but tests positive for COVID-19 upon arrival. This effectively rules him out of the series with the all-rounder spending much of the trip in quarantine. Bess earns a fortuitous five-for in the first Test as Leach steadily improves through the series.

February 2021: Bess dropped, Moeen returns home

After arguably his best England performance in India’s first innings of the first Test, Bess is dropped after losing consistency later in the same game. Moeen is statistically England’s best player in his return Test but flies home days later as part of England’s rotation policy, though England did offer him the last minute option of staying in India. The move perhaps displayed their diminishing confidence in Bess, who just three Tests previously had been their first choice spinner.

Out-of-form Bess returns for series finale

Bess is left out of the two-day pink-ball Test and returns for the series finale with England expecting a similarly spin-friendly surface. Unfortunately, Bess, who is preferred to the uncapped reserve options of either Parkinson (first-class average of 25.22) or Amar Virdi (first-class average of 28.02), fares little better than he did in the second innings at Chennai, generally offering up at least one full toss per over, giving his captain little control. Parkinson has now been a part of four consecutive away Test squads without taking the field.

***

In the last three years, England, through a combination of injury, illness and their own doing, have rarely gone a whole serious without mixing up the make-up of their spin attack to one degree or another; there have been four times where spinners have been dropped after just one poor Test.

In the end, when they needed it most – a must-win Test on a spinning track in India – they resorted to fielding an out-of-form 23-year-old who has never been his county’s first-choice spinner. 23-year-old spinners have bad games, especially those whose experience is limited. In an ideal world, a spinner at Bess’ stage of development should endure such games far away from the cauldron of a must-win away Test. Part of Bess’ misfortune is how public his struggles have been. In August 2020, Virdi had a similarly, if not quite as dramatically, difficult game for Surrey against Middlesex. Unable to get his length quite right, he went at over four runs an over as Middlesex swept and reverse swept him with relative comfort. Virdi’s luxury, if you can call it that, was that this took place away from the limelight, in front of an empty ground at The Oval with viewing figures in the thousands online, rather than the millions on television.

Bess has already played significant roles in England wins and has every chance of going on to have a decorated England career. But it’s a damning indictment of England’s spin-bowling reserves that England felt they had no other option but to play him at Ahmedabad.

It was, in part, avoidable – it remains a great shame that Moeen, England’s fourth leading wicket-taker of all time, has played just one Test since August 2019 – but it was also the result of years of spin bowling being driven to the periphery of county cricket.

England travelled to India after three years where no one spinner enjoyed a real prolonged spell in the side. But perhaps more pertinently, with only one spinner in the touring group born between 1987 and 1996. England will struggle to win in India as long as their spin cupboard remains so strikingly bare. India’s steady rise to becoming the world’s best Test side has been defined by their increasingly impressive group of fast bowlers, traditionally their weakness.

If England are serious about knocking them off their perch any time soon, they should, as Joe Root politely suggested after the fourth Test, consider doing what they can to bring the next generation of spinners through – strengthening their own weakness – so they’re battle-ready the next time England come to India.

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