Dom Bess’s winter was definitely like the proverbial curate’s egg. Good in parts. One might even adapt Henry Wadsworth’s famous nursery rhyme and say that when he was good, he was very, very good, but when he was bad, he was horrid.
Horrid, though, is desperately unfair. As his confidence collapsed, leading to half-trackers and long- hops, he more resembled William Blake’s little boy lost. When the night was dark, no “father figures”, whether Joe Root, Jeetan Patel or Chris Silverwood, were there.
Poor Dom, it seems, is caught in the eternal trap of the post-Swann or Panesar spinner. To be selected they need to take wickets. But to take wickets they need to practise on surfaces that offer them some encouragement. Those wickets are rarely found in an English county season that is bookended by April snow and October chills. A September Indian summer offers some hope, but is far from reliable.
Of course, when they do then find themselves on sub-continental wickets, it’s “kid in a candy store” time. Finally, with a wicket to exploit, the opportunity to fill their boots is there but is hampered by a lack of the control, flight and consistency that comes only with relentless match practice over time.
Bess, at least, along with former county team-mate Jack Leach, has had more opportunity than many thanks to Somerset’s willingness to nurture and prepare tracks to exploit their skills. Sadly, though, Taunton wasn’t a big enough town for both of them and like an old-time delta blues singer, he’s had to leave behind the dust bowls of the Somerset delta and seek fame and fortune on the mean streets of Headingley.
Across the winter tours of Sri Lanka and India, Bess took 17 wickets at 26.58. Not quite in Ravi Ashwin’s class, but not too shabby. OK, 12 of those wickets were in Sri Lanka, but even so, his first wicket in India was Virat Kohli and that with a classic off spinner’s dismissal as drift, turn and sharp bounce helped the ball into Pope’s hands off Kohli’s inside edge.
Sadly though, despite three other wickets, he struggled desperately for control in the second innings and served up a series of full tosses.
Rather than seeing the positives, England’s management replaced him with Moeen Ali for the second Test. In the third Test, Bess watched on helplessly as England tooled up for the day/night showdown with seam and were cut down inside two days by India’s spin gang.
Although recalled in the final game, Bess was, by this time, all at sea. Wicketless in the first innings, he was clearly and very publicly not trusted by his captain to bowl in the second. Adversity and very public shaming, even if not meant as such, could easily destroy the will of a young man. But not it seems Bess.
“To get removed from the side was tough and it was more tough mentally. I did struggle with that side of it,” he said. “I was really disappointed, but Rooty and Spoons [head coach Chris Silverwood] have both said how tough it was to drop me out of that second Test. To be honest, I thought I was going to play in the third Test, but with the pink ball they thought it was going to swing a bit more.
“It was one of the tougher times I’ve had, but those sorts of situations are going to happen again and I think as a player it’s about keeping your emotions as consistent as you can.
“That’s gone now and there’s no point in banging on about it, it’s done. I can only see massive positives. It was a real pleasure to be there and learn.
Despite this, Bess was bold enough to point out the poor management he received. “I’ve spoken to Spoons and [performance director] Mo Bobat and certainly got across how I felt and how, at times, I felt I was managed.
“I’ve also spoken to Joe and I understand where I stand with it all. I feel backed by these guys, who gave me good feedback in terms of what I need to do. I know what I’ve got to do now to have a successful international career.”
Another excellent spinner, now lost to the game, Ollie Rayner, publicly bemoaned the plight of English spinners back in 2015. “All you can hope to do as a spinner is bowl as much as you can, keep it tight and earn the right to stay in the side for the drier months of the season,” he said.
“But then, just when you’d expect spin bowlers to come into their own in July and August, there’s a big block of one-day cricket to disrupt your rhythm before the Championship comes to the crunch in September”.
Time is on Bess’ side, and he is quick to point out that age and experience count. “I’m only 23…when you look at Ravichandran Ashwin or Nathan Lyon they have 10 years on me,” he said. “They’ve probably been through those experiences at first-class level. I’m having them in Test cricket. Everything is heightened at that level. Hopefully in 10 years I’m still going on England tours and leading the attack with young spinners.”
We hope so too, Dom. But for that to happen, there needs to be a change in both structure and attitude from the ECB to ensure spin bowling is given the chance to flourish.