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Dom Bess, and How We Talk About Luck

CricViz look at the decision to remove Bess from the XI for the second Test.

England have decided to drop off-spinner Dom Bess from their side for the second Test in India, starting tomorrow. Despite impressive figures of 5-126 in the opening Test of the series, which saw England win comprehensively, Bess’ worryingly loose second innings performance seems to have been too much to take for England’s selectors.

In assessing this decision, the first thing you would say is that very little suggests this was in England’s plans. Bess has played 11 of England’s last 12 Test matches, often as the sole spinner, and while the protocols surrounding Covid-19 and England’s rest-and-rotation policy have complicated any question of “first-choice” players, it’s clear that Bess was at the front of England’s mind. Nothing they have done since returning to the side has suggested that he was vulnerable to a bad game.

And yet, despite taking key wickets in the first innings including that of Virat Kohli, England will only have been concerned by how easily India played Bess, when the pitch was offering significant assistance on Day 5. The 12 full tosses – one every four balls – which Bess sent down in the second innings was the most by an English spinner in a Test since Mason Crane in 2018, and the second most since such figures were first recorded (2006). The Evening Standard’s Will Macpherson, in his podcast “Two Hacks One Pro”, suggested that Bess’ confidence and willingness to attack in some ways reflected a leg-spinner’s mindset, and made him more like a wrist spinner than most off spinners, but that seems to cut both ways – with that aggression, comes a lack of accuracy, and consistency. The loss of control may have only been brief, but it was pronounced, and it stood out against the metronomic Jack Leach doing his work at the other end.

However, tied to the idea that Bess has not been an accurate spinner in Test cricket, is the notion that he gets ‘lucky’ wickets; indeed, the question of luck has been the main narrative around Bess, for some time. At CricViz, we have written and spoken extensively about how his underlying statistics do not support the idea that his current record is sustainable – in essence, he’s got a decent record, and has been fortunate to have that. Since the start of 2020, when he was brought back into the England side due to illness and poor form, respectively, for Leach and Matt Parkinson, Bess has taken 33 wickets at 31.24. Looking more closely, our Expected Wickets model suggests that the deliveries he has bowled would typically have returned a bowling average of 39.2. The model is not flawless in its assessment, by any means, but all but the most forgiving spectator would say that a large number of Bess’ wickets in Test cricket have been at the very least unorthodox, and at worst, freak dismissals. When people throw about the line “statistics don’t tell the whole story”, they generally mean that the wickets column can deceive. Expected Wickets is in advanced, intelligent agreement.

The notion of a bowler being “lucky” brings about some very strange responses from those around the game, on both sides of the advertising boards. People will offer the idea that there’s nothing wrong with being a “lucky” bowler, as if luck was an undervalued skill rather than something completely out of a player’s control. In the case of Bess there is an argument, understandable in some respects, that he deserves a longer run in the side because of his record, despite a recognition that he has been lucky. In this scenario, seemingly, such a run would see the luck disappear, his record worsen, and then see him being dropped regardless. It probably shouldn’t go unmentioned that the England Selector has written a book titled “Luck”, and is engaged with the processes at play when we discuss it.

What a lot of this argument stems from is the idea of a player “having something about them”. Similar to the way that Sam Curran “makes things happen”, Bess is often discussed in these terms which try to explain why a player who, while not on the face of it of enormous talent, finds a way to perform. Certain players get this label; others, less likely to be labelled as “a competitor” or “always wanting to be in the contest”, have their luck explained in a different way. Some bowlers are “lucky” because the opposition underestimate them, an explanation which ascribes a failure in the batsmen rather than some inherent quality in the bowler, the agency doled out rather differently. Which brings us to Moeen Ali.

Selection is always two-step process, and so the decision to drop Bess is as much about who replaces him in the XI, as the absence of Bess himself. Unless England decide to go with a seamer-heavy strategy – extremely unlikely given discussion around the pitch in the lead up to this Test – then Bess will be replaced in the XI by Moeen. The Worcestershire all-rounder hasn’t played Test cricket since the opening game of the 2019 Ashes, England’s defeat at Edgbaston, where his second innings performance – 29 overs, two wickets, and an economy of 4.5rpo – was too much to take for Joe Root and Trevor Bayliss. In many ways, it was a situation not unlike the one in which Bess finds himself this week.

The comparisons could end there though. In the final 12 months of his Test stint, Moeen’s Expected Bowling Average was 29.1. The version of Moeen that England dropped from their Test side – as a bowler alone – was performing better than Bess has in the last 12 months. The mauling at Edgbaston, and a sense that he was not mentally in the right place for international cricket, softened the edges of the decision, but Moeen’s actual average was 29 in the year he was dropped. He was getting the reward he deserved for the bowling he was delivering.

This isn’t to say England were wrong to drop Moeen Ali when they did. His batting, as essential a part of his game as bowling, particularly when playing as the sole spinner in England, had fallen apart. His final five Tests brought a batting average of only 10, and there was an understandable concern that Australia had his number. But few spoke of Moeen’s bad luck in the aftermath of his deselection, compared to the defence of Bess in the hours since his removal. Perhaps that’s because Bess, new and exciting, is easier to project onto, to see this magical Golden Arm quality; Moeen, on the other hand, had already played 50 Tests before his final run in the side.

Yet Moeen’s xAverage across his career, 34.9, is still better than his career average. For his sake, one hopes that English spin hasn’t used up all its luck already.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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