Ben Jones analyses a classic off-spinner’s wicket, and how it reflects Bess’ Test career so far.
When Dom Bess debuted in Test cricket, against Pakistan at Lord’s back in 2018, he bowled quickly. Not darts, but fast off breaks which, on the face of it at least, did not turn a huge amount. His average bowling speed was 88kph. He went wicketless from 21 overs.
The subsequent three years has seen Bess progress in a peculiarly haphazard manner. He played the second Test against Pakistan at Headingley, taking four wickets, amidst scepticism that he was a Test quality spinner. A conspicuous selection, by virtue of it being among the first of Ed Smith’s tenure, Bess was taken out of the firing line after that Pakistan series and replaced by Adil Rashid.
He didn’t play another Test until the start of 2020, the intervening 18 months seeing him struggle to nail down a place in the Somerset side, before moving to Yorkshire first on loan, then on a deal which is now permanent. An impressive series on recall in South Africa was followed by a very quiet home summer where, playing every match, he took just eight wickets at an average of 56.
However, he kept his place in the XI. In the first Test of the series in Sri Lanka which preceded this India tour, Bess bowled poorly for substantial reward. Indeed, the gap between his Expected Wickets (according to our model) and his actual haul of 5-30, was the largest we have seen for any English spinner in a Test innings. He received a reward which far exceeded what he deserved; plainly, he was lucky.
At every stage of this journey, Bess could have faded away from England’s side. Dropped, shunted around the Championship; recalled, only to register middling returns when given opportunities. But he stayed in contention, with England keeping faith and, in the space of 17 balls to Virat Kohli today, Bess showed why they were right to do so.
The dismissal of Kohli was about as intentional as it gets, for an off spinner. This was a textbook dismissal, luring the batsman into the trap before slamming the door shut. Bess had bowled an attacking line to Kohli from the first over of the day, drawing him outside off stump, landing the ball in line with Jos Buttler’s right foot, as Shane Warne would no doubt advise. The pitch was taking turn but nothing extravagant, and so the threat of the ball which kicks on, without spin, was intelligently brought into play.
From the last ball of Bess’ fourth over, Kohli tried to work a flighted delivery – still in this cluster outside off – into the legside, a shot he is adept at playing which he misjudged. The ball lobbed up, just short of the fielder. To say pressure was building would be unfair to the Indian skipper, but questions were being asked.
With the third ball of his over Bess pushed his speed up to 88kph, about as fast he’d bowled in the spell. Then from the fourth, he dropped down 5kph, and threw the ball wider, wider than any ball he’d bowled to Kohli. Flighted, full, and tempting. the batsman took the bait, pushed hard at the ball and the edge flew straight to Ollie Pope at short leg. From a spinner who is very much an apprentice at this level, it was masterful.
It was also the first time Kohli has been dismissed by an off-spinner in a home Test since November 2017, breaking a run of 217 deliveries with no wicket. A mistake from Kohli is a rare enough thing full stop, but against conventional off spin on home turf, they’re even rarer.
If Archer’s twin dismissals of the openers had got early-rising England fans into an optimistic mood, it was the dismissal of the Indian captain which truly ramped up the excitement levels; the wicket of Ajinkya Rahane sent them rocketing. This was just as remarkable as the previous wicket but through the fielding of Joe Root rather than the bowling itself; a full pitched ball from Bess was slapped by the advancing Rahane to Root’s left, the England captain leaping to take a dazzling catch. Rahane averages 27.83 coming down the track to spin in India, and the uncertainty with which he read the length was clear – but even so. For India’s vice-captain, the punishment did not fit the crime. The wicket of Cheteshwar Pujara was where Galle came to mind most strongly, and where fortune had its most prominent hand. A drag-down from Bess was leapt on, Pujara pulling the ball straight onto short leg’s back, before the ball ballooned to Rory Burns. This was a full-blooded stroke of luck, a poor delivery unpunished, a freak dismissal.
Snaring Pant on 91 completed Bess’ work, India’s keeper skying a wide delivery having destroyed Bess’ spin partner Jack Leach. Bess, taking the ball away from Pant compared to the more predictably in-spinning Leach, was always going to have a better chance of exploiting the ever-increasing rough outside off stump, but he was impressive nonetheless in gambling. As the day wore on Bess’ line got straighter, more defensive, and by stumps he looked understandably tired – but his work had been done, removing the guts of India’s middle order single-handedly. An opposition spinner managing this is very unusual, in a historical context. Only four spinners in Test history (Paul Wiseman, Nathan Lyon, Steve O’Keefe and Bess himself) have come to India and dismissed No.3-6 in the same innings. This was, fortunate or otherwise, a huge achievement for a young spinner.
Yet today in Chennai, just 5% of Bess’ deliveries drew a miss or an edge. Only one innings in his Test career to date has seen him draw fewer errors from the batsmen: the first innings of the second Test in Sri Lanka. The pitch is by no means ragging square but it is offering more assistance than earlier in the match, and the lack of false shots incurred is a concern. It would be callous to say Bess didn’t deserve his wickets, but it would be disingenuous to say he threatened consistently. The dismissal of Kohli was brought on by a level of quality Bess never quite recaptured. He was, still, lucky.
However, decelerating from 88kph to 83kph was not only the story of the Kohli dismissal, but of Bess’ career itself. His average speed today was just 83kph; he’s never bowled slower in a Test innings. To find the innings at the other end of the scale, his fastest, you have to go back to those few days in London when Bess made his debut.
A quirk, perhaps nothing more, but it’s a quirk which illustrates both how much Bess has changed from the bowler who entered the international arena, and the ever-increasing set of skills now available to him. While he is still improving, and still needs to if he’s to sustain his Test career, Bess’ desire and willingness to change and to be moulded by the coaches and advisors around him is clear for all to see.
They say to win an election, you have to be good, and you have to be lucky. The first incarnation of Bess in Test cricket was neither; the second incarnation managed one, even in the absence of the other; the third incarnation, this current version of Bess honed by increased experience and coaching, could well be both. And that’s a hell of a combination.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.