As You Think So You Become
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Bess's spin web a lesson in modification
"Monty Panesar hasn't played 33 Tests, he has played one Test, 33 times." The observation, made by Shane Warne, was a neat line and contained an element of truth about Panesar's Test career. In Warne's view, the left-arm spinner was like a CD stuck on repeat, bowling the same way, Test after Test. He was a very good at what he did but what he did never changed. Panesar had not added skills to his repertoire and was reluctant to change his method or approach. That is not an accusation that could be levelled at Dom Bess.
His maiden five-wicket haul at St George's Park was a lesson in modification. He bowled over and round the wicket, wide of the crease and close to the stumps. He floated it wide and darted it straight. He spun the ball and bowled the one that goes straight on. From time to time, he used a round arm action in the hope the curved angle would lead to something. He was consistently probing, constantly scrapping for wickets. At times, batsmen facing Panesar would face up to the same delivery ball after ball, playing the same shot over and over again. Against Bess today, South Africa's batsmen constantly had new challenges to deal with.
They didn't deal with them particularly well, it must be said. South African batsmen have always been happier against pace than spin and they have been wary against Bess at both Cape Town and here, afraid to take him on, stuck in their crease, groping for the ball like stiffed legged and wristed robots. Pieter Malan chipped the ball straight back to Bess on the second evening. Dean Elgar and Faf du Plessis lunged at the ball with hard, low hands to be caught by close catchers. Rassie van der Dussen's attempted cut shot, which he chopped on, was not a great look either.
That's not to take anything away from Bess, who became the first English spinner to take the first five wickets in a Test innings since Derek Underwood against Australia at Adelaide in 1975. The turn he generated made coming out of the crease difficult, the different angles from over and round the wicket challenged both edges of the bat, as he did when he bowled the ball which went straight on. He found the edge of Anrich Nortje with that delivery, after two big off-spinners, only for Joe Root to put the chance down at slip.
The 22 year-old looks a different bowler to the one that first played Test cricket in two Tests against Pakistan at the start of the 2018 summer. Then it was his batting which made more of an impression than his bowling. He was largely a containing off-spinner at that stage but has added an attacking edge during the past two years, working with Jason Kerr at Somerset and a number of other coaches. The ECB have kept Bess close, too, recognising his strong temperament and character. Last summer they met with him and Somerset to develop an individualised plan.
"Technically I am getting a lot stronger and I think that's through repetition of bowling," Bess said. "The media picked up on those two Tests against Pakistan that I was bowling a lot of side spinners. I have worked a lot on getting up and over it... Mentally knowing that I want to bowl my best ball as much as possible. That means challenging the batter in the air, off the pitch, through my pace, dropping different angles, using the crease."
His work with Rangana Herath in Mumbai before Christmas, on a Lions spin camp, has helped, too. Match Prediction The former Sri Lankan left-arm spinner was a bowler who liked to try things too, relying on subtlety rather than massive turn or the freakish ability of his fellow countryman Muttiah Muralitheran. Together, Herath, Bess and Richard Dawson, the Lions coach this winter, worked on seam position out of the hand - it's clear that Bess is now undercutting the ball less than he once did - and tactical elements such as field placings and angles at the crease. A couple of the other Lions players on that trip marvelled at the amount of work Bess put in.
The effects have been immediate. The wicket of du Plessis, after he had twice come down the wicket and hit Bess for four, came from something Bess worked on with Herath in India. "I dropped my arm a little bit and it bit off the surface in a good area," he said. "That's something that I worked on in India. Get up and over it is one thing but also changing my angles with my arm, my crease. That ball with Faf, I started round the wicket and he came at me quite a lot so I just tried to change the angle, dropped the arm and luckily it paid off.
"I felt like Faf wanted to get on top of me. That plays into your hands a little. I learnt from bowling in Mumbai against good club batters that they want to try and take you down. It's understanding how you can control them while still attacking. Fields is key for that. Speaking to Herath, he spoke massively about his in-out fields. That's what I have done the past two Tests, have close catchers but also have your men to protect your economy rate. Then you can keep bowling."
Bess' performance is a timely one for England. It's far from certain that Moeen Ali, who made himself unavailable for this tour as he takes a break from Test cricket, will return for the trip to Sri Lanka in March which would have left England without an off-spinner of note for a series in which they might want to pick three spinners in their final eleven. Bess's re-emergence on the scene has at least allayed that concern.
If he continues to perform as he has in South Africa, there are bound to be more opportunities for Bess in an England shirt no matter who is fit. After being drafted in initially as cover for the sickness bug that swept the squad early in the tour, Bess has taken the chance offered to him because of his great friend Jack Leach's failure to recover from the ill-effects. Bess impressed Jeetan Patel, the spin bowling coach, in the nets at Centurion and hasn't looked back since. He is the man in possession now. With that will come expectation but Bess is a level-headed young man who will know there is plenty more to prove. He's unlikely to be fazed by the challenge.
Longer-term, there is the thorny issue of whether he will get enough opportunities at Somerset. Bess has been behind Leach in the pecking order, the one to make way when only one spinner is selected, limiting his match play. He went on loan to Yorkshire last season in search of game time and has previously admitted that he may have to pursue first-team cricket away from the club he has grown up at. Conceivably, if he keeps up this sort of form, Bess could go into the summer as England's first choice spinner but second choice at his county. That is not a sustainable position for him or England.
All that can wait for now. Bess has more South African wickets to hunt for. If England are to force a victory over the next two days which, given the poor weather forecast, might be a stretch, he will have a key role to play, particularly if the pitch continues to turn. After a maiden five-wicket haul in Test cricket, he will certainly not lack for confidence. "There's still a lot to work on," he admitted. "But it's the start of a journey hopefully." You can be sure that Bess won't leave any option unexplored.
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