A spinner’s very existence is volatile. Unlike the occupation’s primary objective, the career arc is rarely a perfect parabola. Dom Bess’ young career has proved no different.
Bess is 23. He has been up, down, up and now down again. He’s been the speculative young bolter, the forgotten man, the backup option, the front line option, the answer and now the problem. The various routes and potential destination for Bess feel endless. He is in perpetual motion circling a roundabout of endless exits.
The initial exit route pivots Bess one hundred and eighty degrees – from South West to North East, from the filthy turning Taunton to the spine straitening flatness of Headingley. From the crisp cider infused air of Somerset to the cloudy bitter air of Yorkshire. All with the ultimate goal of becoming England’s primary spinner. A role in which he now feels very far away.
The precarious nature in which Dom Bess currently operates can be summarized in two words – incremental contract. The ECB hierarchy clearly like Bess. They just don’t quite want to commit to Bess. For 2020/21 he was given a contract reflecting that. If it feels half-hearted, that’s because it is. Prove yourself.
Jack Leach was awarded the same. No spinner received a Test central contract. A clear indictment of England’s scrambled thinking on the spinning red ball front. The selectors currently appear to be operating the ever trusty “love me, love me not” mode of selection.
This is only exacerbated by the fact that they are still in an intense love affair with the prospect of spinners who can bat. This isn’t just a fleeting summer romance; this is total and utter infatuation. The ability to actually spin the ball can sometimes feel like a secondary requirement to being able to slap a quick thirty alongside James Anderson.
This is all great news for Bess – who can certainly bat and is proud of it – until England actually need him to rag it. At which point it all becomes a little awkward.
Generally, this is avoided in home series. England have already nicked the opposition off for 50 and have their feet up by lunchtime on day four. But in the subcontinent, where spin is the optimal weapon from ball one, the batting suddenly looks a lot less impressive. This was well evidenced over the winter. In Sri Lanka, Bess saw plenty of work. The other spinning batsman was sick.
On the face of it, Bess out bowled his immediate colleagues: 12 wickets at an average of 21.25. However, the expected wickets suggested a red herring. An expected return of 7 wickets at 35.90 hinted at an element of luck or at the very least extremely inept Sri Lankan batting. Bess’ understated celebration only reinforced that discourse.
Wisden greeted Bess’ career best figures of 5/30 by asking whether it was “the filthiest five-for in Test history?” Scepticism of Bess still clearly stifled any optimism. We like you; we just don’t want to commit to you.
Onwards to India and it was a different kind of pressure. India is the twirlyman’s paradise – a land where you are expected to take wickets. Spinners are a prerequisite to winning.
Sadly, team success in the First Test could not hide Bess’ struggles for control. This time the surface figures didn’t need any further inspection. Twelve full tosses, in eight overs of work and on a day five pitch, was damning. As was an economy of 6.25.
Chris Silverwood wasn’t worried. “I think he just had a bad day, which can happen to anybody. I’m not concerned at this moment in time. Did he have an attack of the yips? No, absolutely not”
It proved to be the dreaded vote of confidence. Dropped for Tests two and three was that incremental contract in evidence. The fact that Silverwood even mentioned the word yips is enough to set alarm bells ringing. Referencing a term for the sudden and unexplained loss of skills by a professional athlete, combined with the two test dropping, is hardly a ringing endorsement.
Bess probably wished he hadn’t returned for Test four. England risked it all with a four-man attack, including a sickly Ben Stokes, who could barely walk. After dropping him for two Tests, England expected Bess to immediately return for some heavy lifting. That vote of confidence from Silverwood doing exactly as you would expect.
Bess’ inability to provide consistency and control meant the overuse of Anderson and Stokes. Root continued trying to bowl Bess until it became impossible to do so. But eventually any inkling of trust in him was entirely eroded. Eventually, Root turned to his own part time spin isntead, which proved of more value and less cost. England spin coach Jeetan Patel summed it up, “things just didn’t work out for him”. Bess’ international career had reached its nadir.
A winter that could have inked Bess as England’s spin option for the next decade, appears to have sent him to the back of the queue. Spinners left at home appear to have jumped ahead of Bess in the pecking order, simply by virtue of not playing.
Bess is now back to where he was around eighteen months ago. Having to prove himself in the notoriously spin averse County Championship. So, where better to turn than the extremely seam-friendly Headingley?
Leaving Somerset became a matter of when rather than if for Bess. The Devon boy forced to flee the nest in search of more regular and fulfilling graft. Jack Leach’s control and tidiness pegged him as the primary option in Taunton. For Bess to permanently elevate himself above Leach, he needed to do it elsewhere.
But for a player looking to re-establish himself in the national set-up, Headingley seems a peculiar destination. Notoriously unwelcoming to spin at domestic level, the often overcast skies certainly lend themselves towards seam bowling, for which Yorkshire is famed. The pitch certainly reflects this fact. It is flat.
Given there is no such thing as a day five pitch domestically, there is less emphasis placed on spin scooping end of match wickets on a worn pitch. The pitches at Test grounds hold up reasonably well over four days. Unless they are specifically curated to extract turn, spinners inevitably see less significantly action.
Yorkshire often bookends the season with an entirely seam based attack. Given that the County Championship is being increasingly pushed to the edges of the summer, it already feels like opportunities for Bess will need to be manufactured.
Across the previous four 1st class seasons, only 12.3% of wickets taken at Headingley were by spinners – almost three times fewer than the 36% taken at Taunton.
Beyond Taunton, the five most spin-friendly pitches in domestic cricket across the previous four seasons have been The Oval, Old Trafford, Edgbaston, Chelmsford and The Ageas Bowl. Of the resident counties, only Warwickshire had an obvious vacancy on the spin front going into this season.
This fit seemed perfect. A couple of hops up the M5 to the Midlands and Bess’ predecessor would be the newly appointed national spin coach, Patel. He’d be operating weekly at a perennial Test venue, for an ambitious county and at the former home of England’s premier spin option in the early 21st century – who just happens to be the ECB Director of Cricket.
However, importantly the desire to make space for spin is evident. A quarter of wickets being snared via spin between 2017 and 2020.
Warwickshire seemed keen, but ultimately Bess wasn’t. “With Warwickshire, we never came to an agreement or contract offer, but I know they were interested at times as well”.
It’s clear who made the choice given that Yorkshire announced the Bess arrival on 2 September and Warwickshire announced their Patel replacement, Danny Briggs, over a month later.
This was certainly surprising given that Bess’ stated aim was a return to top billing in the national set up. Surely, he would have been aware of the underlying figures?
With talk of vengeful seaming wickets when the Indians return over the summer, one would assume selection of only one spinner per Test. Ed Smith is evidently still titillated by the prospect of Moeen Ali, and Jack Leach will provide tidy turn when required.
Strong Yorkshire, strong England so they say. However, such a proudly competitive county plays to win. They will certainly not dance to the tune of England selection. There is no guarantee that Bess will play every week unless it gives Yorkshire the best chance to win. Even if he does, it may be with an eye firmly on his batting prowess.
Before England’s first Test of the summer, Yorkshire play at Headingley (x3), Hove, Canterbury, Cardiff and Old Trafford. The latter being the only pitch that traditionally encourages spin. Realistically, Bess needs to do something to change the current narrative. For that to happen he will need to catch fire in the first half of the County Championship. And even then it may not be enough.
There is one small piece of this puzzle missing, however. Bess has been here before. During that period of being the forgotten man, he also turned to the White Rose for intervention.
And it worked.
Despite all the anti-spin, gloomy skies and nibbling seam, Bess has found success at Yorkshire before. Maybe, just maybe, his move to Headingley isn’t as negative a move as initially suspected.
Amongst that paltry 12.3% of spin wickets, is a golden summer of 2019 – a loan spell to Yorkshire where Bess took 25% of the teams wickets at an average of 17.66.
Having returned to his parent club Somerset, he then went back to Headingley at the end of the season to face his former colleagues, claiming four of the ten wickets Somerset took as they lost by an innings. The architect of that loss was Bess’ successor, Keshav Maharaj who ended up taking a ten-wicket haul.
During the summer of Bess and Maharaj, 30% of Yorkshire’s wickets at Headingley came via spin. Despite all the numbers to the contrary, perhaps there is a creeping glimmer of hope that with the correct amount of quality and ability, Yorkshire can become a fruitful home. For Dom Bess, it is a necessity.
The next contact year commences on 1 October. Clearly, the Indian series sits as a priority in ascertaining whether Leach, Bess or even Moeen Ali can obtain that elusive Test central contract. The financial reward is secondary. The real reward is recognition that you will be England’s premier spinner for this winter’s Ashes and beyond.
It is important to remember, of course, that Bess is still only 23. He’s far from being a lost cause. Therefore, his move could be seen as a natural career progression.
Taunton became a comfort blanket for Bess. There was less expectation because Leach was the premier spinner. His ability with the bat also helped to justify his place. However, only having responsibility when a second spinner was required hampered his development.
Consequently, we still don’t know whether Bess can deliver consistently when it really counts. When he needs take to wickets when a win, draw or loss hinges on spin and spin alone.
A four-year contract is a commitment from both the player and his new county. Acknowledgment from Yorkshire that he is a front line spinner brings a certain expectation. He will have to turn it on a flat one; he will have to find a breakthrough during a stalemate; he will have to win them games.
Undoubtedly there will be set backs and challenges, but that is exactly what Bess needs. It will be how he navigates the ups and downs which will dictate his future international involvement.
It is evident that Bess has the desire and he certainly won’t go quietly. But the real question is whether he has the quality.
Now outside of the comfort zone of Taunton, the upcoming season will go a long way to revealing the answer.