Andy BullFri, 5 March 2021, 5:00 pm
Tea-time on day two, and the match is in the balance. India are 153 for six, 52 runs behind, with Rishabh Pant at one end and Washington Sundar the other. England are one wicket away from the tail, and four cheap ones from a lead. So Joe Root decides to open the bowling in the evening session with Dom Bess. It is a show of faith. Bess hasn’t bowled well, but both batsmen are left-handed and, since Bess will have the advantage of turning the ball away from them, Root’s hoping this is his moment. His first ball floats up, a full toss, Sundar swats it off his hip for four. Bess looks up at the sky, scrunches up his eyes, wipes the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, turns, comes again.
He overcorrects, and drags this ball down, Sundar leans back and slaps it for a single. With Pant on strike now, Bess pulls his third ball down short and wide of off stump, Pant steps back and crashes it towards cover, the fielder leaps, reaches, and the ball flies by his outstretched fingertips and away for four more. Bess throws his arms up in the air, and swears – not, you guess, at the fielder, or the batsman, or even necessarily at himself, but at all of it: the catch, the ball, the game, the tour and everything else.
It was hard work watching Bess bowl on Friday. Seven weeks back, he looked so happy-go-lucky. In the first Test against Sri Lanka he took five for 30, and afterwards cheerily admitted he hadn’t bowled very well. He got one caught at point off a long hop, another by the keeper off a slog sweep that ricocheted off short leg. He got another three in the second innings, four more in the next Test and then, in the first game against India in Chennai, another four, two of them to brilliant bits of fielding, one more caught at midwicket off another rebound from short leg. But like the man said, the harder you practise, the luckier you get.
Then England dropped him. “He needed the break, to be honest with you,” said their spin coach, Jeetan Patel. “I think he was tired and jaded after that first Test.”
There have been a few English spinners whose careers have been cut short by experiences just like this in recent years
Whatever else it’s done for him, the break snapped his lucky streak. In the over before tea, Bess came within the seam’s width of the wicket England needed, the one that might have turned this match, and the series. He was bowling around the wicket to Pant and got one to spin back after pitching on middle. Pant got himself in a tangle and it beat him on the inside, hit him high up his back thigh. England appealed, the umpire shook his head, so Root sent it up for a TV review. The ball was going on to hit smack into the bails, close, but not close enough, because the ball tracking technology is set to cut off at the top of the stumps.
So it was not out, by the narrowest fraction. “If he’d got that LB just before tea we would have seen a different Dominic Bess,” argued Patel. Maybe.
England have tried to shepherd Bess through this innings. Root was generous with his spells, gave him an over at the close on the first night, brought him on for a 20- minute stretch before lunch, let him start again after it and did a similar thing at tea, knowing all the while that he might have been bowling his own off-breaks instead. By the time England took the second new ball he was, because he had run out of patience. Bess kept bowling those full tosses, and gave away more fours than England could afford.
It was a risk to pick him in a four-man attack, and the worst of it was that Bess must have felt he had let down his three teammates – Jiimmy Anderson, Ben Stokes, and Jack Leach – who had to pick up his slack.
“He would have liked to have bowled a lot better today and given a lot more to the group,” said Patel, “but they played him very well, they sat on him and looked for balls to score off when they could, so I’m sure he’ll be feeling quite down and quite tired.”
Fact is that at 23 Bess is still a kid, and only learning the game. And a Test tour of India is a hard school to do it in, especially when you’re still fiddling with the mechanics of your bowling action.
There have been a few English spinners whose careers have been cut short by experiences just like this one in recent years, such as Simon Kerrigan and Mason Crane, and there are others who only ever played a handful of games, such as James Tredwell, Zafar Ansari and Liam Dawson. Even the more successful ones – such as Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, and Monty Panesar – sometimes found the strain of the job overwhelming.
England picked Bess and stuck with him because they admired his pluck. Inexperienced and all out of luck, his action cracking up, Bess didn’t have much else to fall back on now. He’ll need to be awful tough to come back from this.