In this week’s Wisden Cricket Weekly Podcast, Phil Walker, Jo Harman, Yas Rana and Ben Gardner discussed the future of England’s spin bowling options.
England have gone with Dom Bess for the first two Tests of the summer, who has picked up where he left off in South Africa, producing tidy spells with the ball in both Tests and arguably bowling the perfect off-break to take the crucial wicket of Jason Holder on day five at Emirates Old Trafford.
Reflecting on the Test, the panel debated whether Bess is the best spin option for England as the side looks to tour India this winter.
Jo Harman: “I felt sorry for him for a lot of yesterday [day five] because I watched him for a lot of the Test match and thought he bowled tidily and looked threatening at times. He would have liked to have bowled at the other end but didn’t get the choice of ends as the quicks were going so well. What he has got is that he offers a lot, he scores useful runs down the order, I think he could become quite a good batsman down the order. He’s good in the field as well. He’s a very different kind of cricketer but there’s kind of an Ashley Giles thing developing about him where he offers a bit of everything, crucially he can tie up an end which is something that Moeen Ali has struggled to do throughout his Test career, so that even when he’s not taking wickets, and he’s probably not going to tear through too many batting line-ups he is still doing an effective job for the team.
“He obviously loves speaking to the media, you get that impression when he’s sitting in the Big Brother chair, but he speaks really clearly about his role in the team and what he’s been asked to do. He said he was getting frustrated because he was leaking too many runs yesterday but he’s got a really clear job and it seems like Root trusts him to keep the runs down in a way that previous captains didn’t really do. He is quietly becoming quite an important part of this England side.
“And on the face of it you’d think they’d be better off picking Jack Leach against this West Indies side because they’re packed so full of right-handers who’d in theory struggle more against the left-arm spin, but Bess, for the time being, has kind of made that place his own, assuming they do pick a frontline spinner.”
Phil Walker: “The big challenge for Bess is the winter because he can do a job in England nicely. A Giles-esque job, and he’s doing it quite well. He fits the mould better than Jack Leach does because he fields and he bats. And he’s cocky as well and they like that. In the way that with Jack Leach there was more of a sense that he was curio, that he was mildly surprised to be there himself whereas with Bess you get a sense that he’s decided when he was 15 that he’s going to be England’s off-spinner.
“It feels like he likes that role, it sits more comfortably with him. England will like the fact that they have a cricketer in there who can get a few at eight or nine, who can field, I’m not saying Leach can’t, Leach is fine, but he fits the bill. He works in that side and he carries out a role in England that makes sense. The question is does he have enough in conditions that help him. And we’ll have to wait and see. He’s done well considering when he first came into the England side initially he bowled like a drain, truth be told, and he went away and they’ve been really impressed with him. From what I gather and he’s developed a lot.”
JH: “He’s not yet played 50 first-class games as well, so the ceiling is potentially higher there than it is with Leach, who’s probably got about as good as he’s going to get at this stage of his career. Moeen we know is a bit hit and miss, whereas Bess could in two or three years be a significantly better bowler than he is now.”
PW: “He had a very marginal decision that went in Roston Chase’s favour in the first Test match on the final day, it was one of those where 45 per cent of the ball is hitting and if he’d got that wicket it would have had an effect on that final day; it may have even precipitated an England win. The Holder wicket was probably the crucial moment of the last two or three hours. You never thought Holder was going to not be there at the end and the question seemed to be can people hold on with Holder? As it was he produced a beauty, he’d been pumped down the ground for six the previous ball, tossed it up again and it was a jaffer. So he has deliveries in his pocket and he has the accuracy to do the job as a containing spinner in the Giles vein so yeah, it makes sense why they’re picking him. I imagine he’ll play the whole summer.”
Yas Rana: “I thought England used him oddly because that was arguably the best ball of the Test match and he bowled a similar ball in his first over, tossing it up outside off-stump pitch and it spun into Hope just above his middle-stump but then for the next 20 overs he was bowling over the wicket, where he has a worse career record, aiming at middle and trying to spin it in and get the batsman to flick it to short-leg or leg-slip. A ploy that didn’t really work for the whole test match except against the tailenders.”
Ben Gardner: “It was interesting in the South Africa series after the second Test when we discussed Bess v Leach for the third and I was told by someone on this panel that Leach was a much better bowler. I guess Bess has shown since then that the gap has narrowed but I think that gap still exists for me and I think if you’re looking at building to India then there’s a couple of things to take into account.
“I think Joe Root is a less sure captain of a spin bowler than of a pace bowler so in a way you want to get him captaining both, knowing what field to set for both, how to captain when the ball’s turning away from the bat as Leach would to the right-handers versus when its turning in. In the last Test when you have Chris Woakes and Sam Curran playing that need for the extra batting that Bess gives you over Leach is lessened. So I see quite a strong argument for rotating them based on the makeup of the seam attack.
“I think there is something in Yas’s point in that Leach is a bit of a cult hero because of the 1* and he wipes his glasses and whatever but he is also a really good bowler and I think there is a chance he could get better – he’s not particularly old.”
PW: “I think they will both play in India. My prediction is that Leach will out-bowl Bess in India, in the way that Panesar out-bowled Swann in 2012. But Bess will play a lot more Test matches than Leach because there is more of a package there.”
YR: “I think the discussion is influenced a lot by the amount he’s improved, so Bess is obviously a much better now than when he first played for England in 2018 but does that mean he’s England’s best spinner now? I’m not sure he is. I think he’s bowled pretty well, he’s been a good 7/10 but West Indies have 10 right-handers and I think that should influence selection if England are picking teams to win Test matches right now.
“Look at Pakistan as well, Pakistan have got three right-handers in their middle-order; Babar Azam, Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali, Mohammad Rizwan as well who got 100 in their warm-up game. That’s a lot of right-handed batsmen to get out this summer. If they were exactly the same in quality I’d still pick Leach [because of the right-handers] and I think Leach is still slightly ahead. And looking at the next Test if England pick Woakes in particular, you don’t need Bess’s batting at all and it just comes down to who is the better spin bowler and I think that is Jack Leach. That’s not to say Bess has bowled badly. I don’t think he has, I think he’s bowled pretty well but I think if you’re trying to win a Test match right now, Jack Leach is more likely to do that. And he hasn’t disappointed England in his 10 Test matches.”
JH: “It’s good that we’re even able to have this debate about English spin and it shows its looking in better shape than it was because usually you’re looking at an England subcontinent tour you’ve got your spinner who’s in place and then with the two you pick out of county cricket, is it the guy who took 20 wickets because he’s the leading spin wicket-taker in county cricket?
“And now you could go there with Bess, Leach, Moeen, three who could by then be relatively experienced Test cricketers rather than previously [in 2016] they had to pluck out the likes of Gareth Batty at the age of 39 and Zafar Ansari. This time they’ll actually have three spinners who know what they’re doing in Test cricket and I’m not saying they’ll go out there and beat India but they seem better equipped in that area than they have been for quite some time.”
BG: “That’ll be an interesting dilemma when it comes to it probably not one for discussing now but you don’t really need three spinners in India because of the way pitches have changed slightly there.
If you had Moeen back to somewhere near his best in the squad and then Dom Bess and Jack Leach then is it Mo and Leach? Is it Bess and Leach? Is it Mo and Bess?”
You can listen to the full episode of the Wisden Cricket Weekly Podcast here.