England’s mainstay over the summer, Somerset’s second choice at the end of it. Dom Bess speaks to Taha Hashim about his move to Yorkshire and his place in the English spin hierarchy.
“Before I knew it, Mo Bobat phoned me up and said: ‘You’re on standby, you might go, you might not go,’ and I was like, ‘Fine, I know I’m ready if I do get the opportunity’. Then the opportunity came around and within four weeks we’d won the series and I’d been part of that. That’s how quickly things can happen, but I also know how quickly things can turn on its head as well.”
Dom Bess is remembering his whirlwind return to England’s Test set-up last winter, that call from the ECB’s performance director eventually leading to the off-spinner’s arrival in South Africa, where an illness bug was spreading through the ranks. Bess had just come off a rejuvenating spin camp in Mumbai with Rangana Herath, following on from another summer spent in the shadows of Jack Leach, his Somerset teammate and the county’s first-choice spinner. Since his Test debut in May 2018, Bess had played just 12 first-class matches for his club, spent time in the seconds and briefly gone on loan to Yorkshire for some game time.
In South Africa, though, he was suddenly back in the show – if you’re English and can give it even a bit of a rip, you’re never really that far from it. With Leach sidelined and Matt Parkinson’s leggies ignored, Bess kept it tight at Cape Town and then took five at Port Elizabeth, his Cinderella story materialising into a 3-1 series win. He then kept his place post-lockdown and was the only bowler to play all six Tests in a bubble summer. But, as Bess knows, things can turn. Quickly.
Returning to county duty for the latter stages of the truncated season, Leach was the main man once more as Bess missed out on the XI for the Bob Willis Trophy final at Lord’s. There he was, at HQ, face mask on and drinks in hand as 12th man, though with the announcement having come through weeks earlier that this was a final hurrah: a four-year deal had been signed with Yorkshire, the competition with Leach now restricted to the highest level.
“Somerset were keen to keep hold of me – with the situation it was going to be tough to stay,” he says. “Warwickshire, we never came to an official agreement or contract offer, but I know they were interested at times as well.” In the end, though, the White Rose won out. Bess admits that it was the right time to go.
“At Somerset, we’ve got Leachy, and I have always played second fiddle to him. In terms of where I am now, I can’t be challenging him – we can’t be challenging each other at domestic level, as whoever plays for Somerset could have a chance with England. And if you’re not playing for Somerset, then you’re playing for the second team and you’re even further away from the England side. It was time to move on.
“It’s very close to my heart, it’s my home club, it’s the club I’ve grown up at, the club where a lot of my best mates are: Abes [captain Tom Abell], George Bartlett, Tom Banton, Ben Green, Tom Lammonby. All these guys, I’ve grown up with.”
So that explains staying right until the dying of the late September light against Essex, even with a deal in place elsewhere, as Somerset failed to shake their tag as perennial bridesmaids in a losing draw.
“After I said I was going to move on, I said to the club that I wanted to be around for the next five to six weeks because at the end of the day, I’m a Somerset player up until September, October, whenever we finish, and I wanted to do anything the club wanted me to do. I wanted to be a team man. I could have easily gone on loan and buggered off and not had any commitment to the club. But my big thing was that I wanted to play for Somerset one more time, I wanted to put in everything I could: if it’s bowling in the nets, if it’s being 12th man.
“I was enjoying the company of my best mates through the games, being around them, creating and keeping hold of those memories. Now it’s over, I’ll go to Yorkshire knowing I’ve given everything I could.
“We’ve left it in a good, healthy position. Because you never know what will happen; I might be coming back in 10, 15 years. You never know what’s going to happen in the future. I think it’s really important to have those relationships and keep those relationships healthy.”
Talk of a return way down the line suggests a heavy heart at the move, and Bess later even mentions that he’d once had ambitions to be a “one-club man”. Circumstances have forced a rewiring of his hopes and dreams, and while he talks of challenging for trophies, playing in all formats and developing himself into “not just a handy batter but a genuine all-rounder” at Headingley, everything leads back to making it on the international scene.
There’s the pinpointing of Jos Buttler’s move from Somerset to Lancashire in 2013, back when he and Craig Kieswetter were wicketkeepers duelling it out for club and country. “I look at people like Jos, and you look at where he is now. He was in a very similar situation, and he’s gone on and probably hasn’t been around as much for Lancs at all because he’s with the England side, and my big ambition as a youngster is to always play for England.”
He’s there already, although there’s still some work to do. In six Tests against West Indies and Pakistan, Bess’ eight wickets came at an average of 55.50 (strangely enough, that’s exactly what he averaged with the bat), while he was also the most expensive member of the frontline attack with an economy rate of 3.26.
“For me it was always a learning curve,” Bess says of the summer just gone. “I know it can be quite cliché and I’m young and I can use that, but it’s not using it, it’s just seeing what’s in front of me and accepting at times that I’m going to have to learn on the hardest stage. Even with the critics, at times I probably won’t do as well as people expect and it’s just taking that on the chin and learning from it.
“With my bowling, I can still get more on it, I can still get even more accurate. It’s been documented how I’ve got more over the top of the ball, but I certainly think that I can get even more on it and land it in a smaller area as well to keep continuing to attack the batters and bowl my best ball. Even those smallest things, I’m always trying to carry on improving. You look at people like [Nathan] Lyon and those guys, they’re landing the ball on a 50p over and over again with an amount of revs, they’re understanding when they need to attack, when they need to defend. There’s a lot of things, and I’m learning all of this in an international arena, which is only going to be a positive for me.”
But if the case is that he’s still learning the ropes, can he really be seen as England’s best option right now? Leach’s average is nearly 12 runs less from the same number of Tests – one particular coach who has worked closely with both laments England’s treatment of Leach – Moeen Ali has 181 Test wickets and the name of white-ball supremo Adil Rashid has been dominating the red-ball news cycle. The question to Bess is simple: does he believe he’s England’s best option?
“My belief is there, 100 per cent. It would be strange if I said I don’t have the belief I’m the No.1 spinner, because then you’d be thinking: ‘Why are you there?’ But it’s also understanding that there’s no point in having an ego. There’s no point in going around saying: ‘I think I’m the best.’ There’s no point in doing that because, firstly, you can come across as a bit of a dick and at the end of the day the belief should be within yourself.”
At the tender age of 23, you can see England’s big picture. He’ll get better, showed Test quality with the ball in South Africa, is a fine fielder and always seems to offer a meaningful batting contribution without making the highlights reel. In the shift from Bayliss’ unhinged aggression to Silverwood’s fruitful conservatism, Bess seems to be the man for the time and place, a long-term investment fitted in a Gilesesque mould.
And for now, with the action still finding its way, it’s Bess’ mentality that’ll have to serve him best. When asked about his greatest strengths as a bowler, there’s not much from the coaching manual: “Being competitive, getting in the battle, creating chances. 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.”
With away series against Sri Lanka and India on the horizon, Bess will most certainly be in the game if he gets the nod, and he’s keen to emphasise upon the collective strength of England’s spin options.
“It’s a great opportunity to show the cricketing world that we’ve got some good English spinners and actually we can do what happened when Monty [Panesar] and Graeme Swann went about it in India all those years ago. We’ve certainly got the capabilities as a spin unit.
“Virds [Amar Virdi] looked like he bowled really nicely this summer. Mase [Mason Crane], he’s always growing, he’s had injuries and he’s coming back from it, and as a leg-spinner as well it’s a really tough gig. He’s certainly a very, very good bowler and you see what he’s done in white-ball cricket. You’ve got the likes of Parky [Parkinson], who was on the international tour and he’s shown his class as well. You’ve seen it in white-ball cricket, he knows how to go about things.
“We know what Leachy can do, we know what Mo can do, Rash is world-class. You look at Matt Critchley as well. Just naming all these guys, there’s a lot of potential. We’ve seen [Dan] Moriarty at Surrey do pretty well this summer. We’re in a really healthy position.”
But what next for Bess? “Obviously I’d love to say that I’ll play 100 Tests and be around for 10-15 years. I will try and make that happen, but however many Tests I play, wherever I play, it’s also about having the respect of my teammates and for them to say I was a good bloke and competitor.”
In the short run, there’s the search for continuous improvement. After the Bob Willis Trophy final, Essex’s Simon Harmer was approached for a chat – “he is a genuinely gun world-class off-spinner” – while he’s open to Graeme Swann’s desire to work with England’s spinners. “I’ve had chats with him, I’ve got his number, he was very open for me to come and chat to him, and I’ll certainly use him.
“I think it would be a really, really exciting opportunity to work with someone like him. I know Leachy would find it really exciting as well, so hopefully in the near future we will have him come in.”
Sparky, confident, likeable and candid earlier this year when opening up about his mental health struggles, it’s hard not to wish Bess well going forward. Now as he prepares to move north, the career being less of a rollercoaster ride would probably be best for his progression. Now, let the twists and turns come with the ball.