They’ve shown their talents with both bat and ball, but what final forms will Dom Bess and Sam Curran take as Test cricketers? Oscar Ratcliffe investigates.
In the universe of Philip Pullman’s (not so) young adult fiction series His Dark Materials each human is accompanied by a physical embodiment of their soul: a daemon.
These take the form of an animal and by dint of a pseudo-religious, uber metaphor, as a child one’s daemon can morph at will. A mongrel of B-list beasts – “your snow-foxes, your stoats, your jays”, to use a Nasserism – serviceable, in these early years the daemon lacks definition.
But then, once the subject reaches adulthood, a seismic transformation takes place. The daemon “settles” as one creature representing a true distillation of self, an extra-corporeal reminder of your personality, warts and all – so more likely a sloth than a snow leopard (don’t kid yourself).
In the early stages of a career, cricketers, much like Pullman’s furry friends, are prone to flirt with different forms.
What will they be? The imperious run maker. The grumpy fast bowler. A bowler who bats. A batsman who bowls. A fielder who fields (hopefully not).
Two young English all-rounders ripe for some soul-searching are 21-year-old Sam Curran and Dom Bess, one year his senior.
Both, at present, represent attractive all-round packages for England’s Test side such that Bess, a disciplined off-spinner with a sound batting technique, and Curran, a partnership-breaking left-arm seamer with a handy line in match-turning fifties, are keeping more grizzled faces out of the team.
Initially, their selection seems at odds with England’s move towards picking specialists. But Bess’ five-for in the first innings at Port Elizabeth and Curran’s sparkling lower-order batting are the latest indications that these are rare talents, each more than the sum of his parts.
But moving forward, with tours to India and Australia on the horizon, is it worth persisting with two “bits-and-pieces” all-rounders? Or, like Pullman’s daemons, might Curran and Bess undergo profound changes as they come of age?
“I see a touch of Sobers in him.”
“He could bat three for England.”
“The problem is his batting’s better than his bowling.”
These are as seasoned eyes as Geoffrey Boycott, Andrew Flintoff and Darren Gough passing judgment on, yes, Stuart Broad. That’s the same Stuart Broad who over the last three years averages 8.23 with the bat away from home. Yes, the very same Broad whose gangly form you witnessed bravely pegging it to square leg as soon as Kagiso Rabada’s speed clicked over 85mph at Centurion.
It seems scarcely believable but after the Nottinghamshire seamer’s early forays in Test-match cricket many wondered whether we were witnessing the birth of yet another “new Ian Botham”.
Now with Broad there are extenuating circumstances – his batting ability has declined markedly since being hit in the face by a 90mph Varun Aaron bouncer – but there is something else at play: specialisation.
For as Broad’s powers with the bat have waned, he has established himself as one of England’s pre-eminent fast bowlers (more Bill Voce than Phil DeFreitas). In his early years as a graceful batsman and somewhat ineffective fourth seamer, few would have predicted that.
In fact, extraordinarily, after 10 Tests Broad had a comparable all-round record to the totemic Steve Smith and averaged marginally more with the bat.
Smith’s career too has flown in the face of early assumptions. On Test debut a man who would go on to become the first to score 500 runs in three consecutive Ashes series batted at No.8 and was picked as Australia’s specialist spinner. Selectors prayed they had found the next Shane Warne; little did they know they had uncovered the new Bradman.
Broad and Smith’s careers are informative when assessing young players in the Test arena.
Firstly, selectors are liable to shoehorn younger players into roles based on the needs of their team at the time. Broad began fulfilling his promise in 2009, the same year that all-rounder Andrew Flintoff hung up his boots. As soon as it became clear that Smith could land a leg-break, he was rushed into the Test side to occupy Warne’s sizeable shoes. Both players are now wholly different beasts.
The pair also broke into their respective sides, like Curran and Bess, based on all-round ability and then veered dramatically towards specialisation as their berth became more secure – in Pullman lingo, they “settled”.
Broad and Smith are not only two fine examples of players who rewarded the early faith placed in them (both debuted at 21), but are also illustrative of how young cricketers, in the process of working out their game at the highest level, can evolve into something manifestly different.
What allowed these two greats to undergo such existential changes on the most gruelling stage of all was a quality which continues to set them apart – their character.
“They must display an element of ‘mongrel’ and not back down when confronted”. So Steve Waugh, Australia’s phlegmatic former skipper, counselled his countrymen on the eve of the 2013 Ashes series (a series which Broad would end with two five-wicket hauls and Smith a breakthrough maiden century at The Oval).
Waugh himself was well placed to offer such advice. His career embodied this dogged spirit, his appetite for the fight seeing him through a transformation from seam bowling all-rounder to a specialist whose batsmanship became a byword for grit.
Similarly, Broad and Smith early in their careers showed signs of having the mentality to compete in the Test match cauldron – a bit of mongrel.
Interviewed by The Telegraph in 2016, Broad revealed that in personality tests run on England cricketers by the Loughborough National Academy his profile was “bluey red: a hot temper, coupled with a cool analytical mind”. His first captain, Michael Vaughan, recognised this latter quality, branding him eight years earlier “the most intelligent bowler I have ever worked with”. Broad was 21 at the time.
Smith, in a roundabout away, earned a recall to the Test side in 2010/11 Ashes series by force of personality. In a bizarre turn of events the young leg-spinning all-rounder was selected to tell jokes and lighten the mood of an Australia depressed from being walloped by a rampant England. Whilst the rum nature of this recall has been used as a stick with which to beat Smith, it also reveals a young player at ease in a Test-match dressing room.
Smith’s problem-solving is also second to none. As Geoff Lemon, in his unpacking of the Sandpaper affair, Steve Smith’s Men, points out “his game is about whittling away flaws” through weight of practice.
It seems that Bess and Curran are blessed with at least some of these qualities. Bess since his last run out in England colours worked out where he needed to improve, fought his way back into the side and has spectacularly seized his opportunity at Port Elizabeth. Curran has already shown buckets full of “mongrel” in his short career, snatching big wickets and executing controlled yet aggressive 50s batting with the tail at critical junctures.
The Smith and Broad test cases prove that there is every chance that as Bess and Curran progress they will shed that “bits-and-pieces” tag and repay England’s early investment. In the short term, however, the capacity to problem solve and come up trumps at crucial moments are tools enough to allow these green all-rounders to navigate the Test arena.
Come soon when the chips are down in India and Australia, with the pedigrees whimpering, you can bet these mongrels will show their bite.
First published in Ballanced Opinions