He’s had his ups and downs, but Dom Bess deserves praise for how he’s gone at Test level so far, writes Taha Hashim.
Speaking to Wisden.com last October, Dom Bess was asked about his greatest strengths as a bowler. Tellingly, there was no mention of a masterful stock off-break, no talk of any subtle variations. Nor was there a statement on unrelenting accuracy. Instead, he discussed his mentality.
“Being competitive, getting in the battle, creating chances,” he replied. “I genuinely do believe at times I can create chances from nowhere, and that’s a belief. At Taunton we’ve had spinning wickets and growing up on spinning wickets has certainly helped me. My competitiveness and getting into the game is always a big one.”
In his short career so far, it’s been easy to see what Bess can’t do. He doesn’t rag it miles, can often lack control, and you aren’t going to see too many magic balls that dip viciously and breach the defence. After all, he wasn’t even first-choice at Somerset.
And yet, after 12 matches, 31 wickets at a respectable average of 33.09 – 20 of them away from home at 23.05 – and two five-wicket hauls, maybe Bess is reminding us of one of Test cricket’s great truisms: what lies between the ears can carry you a long way in this game.
In the last couple of weeks, discussion has surrounded his work in Sri Lanka, where wickets were gifted to him through some poor batting. Without doubt, he had luck firmly on his side on the opening day of the first Test, right from the moment Kusal Perera reverse-swept the 23-year-old’s second ball of the series to slip.
But let’s shift perspective for a bit. On the fourth day of the second Test, a small Sri Lankan lead left the game evenly poised and shifted the match away from a test of technical skill to one of nerve. Bess could have easily let a difficult first innings with the ball affect his performance in the second, when the spinners really had to do their bit.
On the other hand, Angelo Mathews had a first-innings ton to his name and Niroshan Dickwella had hit his Test-best. Yet both fell in frenetic fashion when it mattered most: Mathews didn’t connect from a sweep and Dickwella found the catcher at cover. On both occasions, Bess was the victorious bowler, showing his worth on a Galle turner.
He always seems to leave some sort of positive imprint on a game, too. Even when he looked out of his depth with the ball in his first Test stint, Bess contributed a half-century on debut against Pakistan as a 20-year-old and followed it up with a knock of 49 as nightwatchman in his next innings.
When his bowling lacked the required zip last summer, he made sure to dig in with the bat, a few handy red-inkers helping him to an average of 55.50 across six Tests against West Indies and Pakistan. And after going wicketless in Sri Lanka’s first innings in the second Test, his 81-run partnership with Joe Root on day three was vital in narrowing the deficit and taking some sting out of the hosts’ momentum. Through a useful spell here and a few runs there, Bess has now been a part of eight Test wins and been on the losing side just twice.
India, of course, is another case altogether. This is where Murali and Warne averaged more than 40, where quick feet and rubber wrists crush spirits, where the home side find it extraordinarily hard to not win. And they’ve just finished toying with Nathan Lyon, a man with 399 Test wickets, on his home patch. It really doesn’t get much harder than this. After the glory of Sri Lanka, things could go pear-shaped pretty quickly.
For now, however, it is time to give Bess plenty of credit. It doesn’t take a lot to disappear as an English spinner shortly after you’ve enjoyed some time in the spotlight, and that seemed a likely prospect before Bess was called out of the wilderness for a tour of South Africa. To even get to this stage has taken some doing, and he’s done it while having to fight for overs in the shires. To still perform admirably on the international stage speaks to some resilience.
So while there could come a stage in the next month where Rishabh Pant is smashing the daylights out of it on a flat one, there’s reason to believe that Dom Bess will keep his head up. With self-belief in his favour, he could create a chance out of nowhere.