Despite taking 17 wickets in his last three Tests, England have dropped Dom Bess for the second Test against India. It’s a ruthless call, writes Taha Hashim, but a fair one.
On the face of it, England’s decision to drop Dom Bess for the second Test against India is more than a little harsh. The off-spinner took 12 wickets in Sri Lanka at an average of 21.25, before bagging a memorable four-for on day three of the first Test at Chennai.
By removing Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Rishabh Pant – 59 Test hundreds between them – he helped England to a key first-innings lead, setting the platform for one of his country’s greatest-ever red-ball wins. For a 23-year-old who’s still learning on the job, you’d take that.
But things turned quickly after a memorable Sunday. While Jack Leach bounced back from a mauling from Pant to spin England home on day five, Bess’ control waned significantly. Full tosses came and went during his eight overs in India’s chase, and he was dispatched with ease to concede his runs at more than six an over.
As ever with Bess, he did still find a way to contribute: a beautifully shaped delivery spun sharply to grab the outside edge of Washington Sundar, who had looked in total control when frustrating England with an unbeaten 85 in India’s first innings. Nonetheless, Bess’ struggles failed to relent after that wicket. While Leach had been expensive earlier in the match, his figures could be blamed on some extraordinary ball-striking. A tired-looking Bess seemed to be battling with himself, his inability to land the ball on the wicket a bum note in an otherwise fantastic day for England.
With that in mind, England’s decision to bring a fresh Moeen Ali in begins to look more understandable. The substitute is no nobody either: for all his unpredictability, this is an off-spinner with 181 Test wickets – just three England twirlers have more – and two Test centuries in India.
Things haven’t been easy of late, though. For much of 2020, Moeen looked lost against the white ball, taking three wickets across 14 matches for England and averaging just 18.10 with the bat. After standing in as captain for England’s last T20 of the summer, he didn’t get a game in the South Africa series that followed the IPL, where he’d spent plenty of time on the sidelines, too.
Yet this isn’t a cricketer to give up on easily. Since Moeen’s Test debut in 2014, only Joe Root and Ben Stokes have been named Player of the Match in the format on more occasions for England. When he finds his touch, the 33-year-old remains one of English cricket’s most talented possessions. The last time he belatedly entered a Test series, he took nine wickets to seal a series win over India, kicking off a 10-game stretch in which he claimed 48 Test wickets at 25.27. A poor showing at Edgbaston in the 2019 Ashes brought that chapter to a close, and we haven’t seen him in the five-day game since. Sure, he hasn’t played first-class cricket in 17 months, but England would have had to make peace with that when they picked him for this subcontinental tour.
Speaking on Friday, Joe Root made it clear it wasn’t an easy decision to leave Bess out in place of Moeen. “Dom’s contributed fantastically well in these three games and made a real impact. With him missing out, the messaging for him moving forward is to keep working at that consistency of his game – delivering that skill time and time again.
“He’s very young, he’s very much at the start of things. This doesn’t mean he’s going to be pushed back down the pecking order. It gives him the opportunity to take a step out of Test cricket – the harshest environment, especially in these conditions, especially against a team that plays spin so well – to take stock and work at his game.” Root has rarely been recognised for his ruthless streak as captain. No longer.
Bess remains a precocious cricketer worth protecting. Flaws in his game always seem to be the focus, and yet at the same age, Graeme Swann, England best spinner of the 21st century, was still six years away from a Test debut. Bess, on the other hand, has 25 Test wickets away from home at an average of 23.48. He’s had fortune on his side – that five-for against Sri Lanka was by no means pretty – but he seems to be a bowler who makes his own luck. Even if he doesn’t play a part in the two Tests at Ahmedabad, it could be that he’s helped set up a famous series win.
Comparisons have been made with Steven Finn’s omission after three Tests in the 2010/11 Ashes, when the leading wicket-taker in the series was left tearful after being discarded. A decade on, his perspective had shifted; speaking to ESPNcricinfo’s Alan Gardner last year, he said: “I saw it as a job unfinished at the time. Whereas now, when you look back, I played three Test matches in one of the best series that an England team’s been involved in in the last 25 years.” Maybe Bess will be able to say something similar in years to come.