Dom Bess has admitted that he “lost a lot of confidence” in his game while out of the England team, after finding himself unable to break into the Somerset team a month after his Test debut in 2018.
After his county team-mate Jack Leach injured his thumb the day before a squad announcement, Bess was parachuted into the Test side to play Pakistan, taking three wickets to help complete an innings win at Headingley. But Leach’s return to fitness meant that he was playing second-team cricket only weeks later, causing him to fall “off the radar a little bit”.
He remained second choice at Somerset in the 2019 season, and had to go on loan to Yorkshire to get County Championship playing time, but found himself called up for the South Africa tour at the last minute following Leach’s illness, and impressed sufficiently in the nets to earn a place in the side for the Newlands Test, where he bowled 60 overs to help England to victory.
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“It has been a hell of a ride,” Bess said. “I played the Test matches in 2018 and did alright, but then fell off the radar a little bit, and within myself I lost a lot of confidence within my game.
“Over the last two years, I’ve just been gradually building that back up, and became a lot more realistic about things. I’m only 22 so I’ve got time on my side, but to get that luck to be here and to take that opportunity is just amazing, and I guess it sums up cricket really.
“It just goes to show that all I have to do is knuckle down, work hard, which I have been doing over the last four or five months, working on my action, and then when you get an opportunity like this you can put it into place and see if it can withstand the pressure.”
“I’m happy bowling at one end, not picking up wickets and letting the boys do it at the other end”
Bess’ success at Newlands can in part be attributed to a push from the ECB to introduce more bespoke programmes for young players. In November, he travelled to Mumbai alongside Mason Crane and Amar Virdi as part of a spin-bowling camp, and worked extensively with Rangana Herath in the nets, and will travel to Australia with the Lions following this tour to give him exposure to those conditions with an eye on the 2021-22 Ashes.
“I was in India a few weeks ago with Herath which was an unbelievable experience and really helped me,” Bess said. “Picking the brains of someone with that knowledge and who is that good in those conditions is crucial.
“I get told a lot that I always want to try and bowl magic balls… this is where I’m starting to mature and realise that it is about building it up bit by bit.
“I’m really happy with how I went here because I felt like I built up pressure and produced chances along the way. That is what I’m looking for, the whole package. I’d love to be taking four or five wickets and being the man, but if I am producing consistently then that will come another day.”
Bess became the first England spinner since Ashley Giles in 2003 to bowl 60 overs in a Test match with an economy rate below 2, and earned plaudits from both sides for his efforts in the holding role. He bowled almost exclusively from the Kelvin Grove End, allowing England’s seamers to rotate from the Wynberg End which offered them more assistance, and conceded 1.98 runs per over, in stark contrast to the 3.82 he leaked in his first two Tests.
“It was all about trying to build up sustained pressure, and I think especially in the first innings that was key,” he said.
“I could be a little bit more attacking in the second dig, but even then there wasn’t a huge amount on offer from the straight. It was about putting the ball in the right place, and I got a couple of balls to bounce and take the inside edge and create chances.
“Some days they go to hand and some days they don’t, but as long as I keep putting the ball in a good area and create chances then that is going to happen. When you’ve got guys like Stokesy at the other end and Jimmy and Broady then it is phenomenal – I’m happy bowling at one end, not picking up wickets and letting the boys do it at the other end. It is unbelievable to be a part of.”
Bess’ success is well timed for England, with a two-match series in Sri Lanka in March that their first-choice offspinner Moeen Ali is expected to miss in order to play in the Pakistan Super League, having made himself unavailable for Test cricket in order to “freshen up” after a “draining” summer.
But he maintained that his immediate focus was on keeping his spot for the Port Elizabeth Test, with Leach potentially back in contention after returning to training.
“I’ve got to focus on next week at PE [and] whether I play or not,” he said. “I completely understand if Leachy plays, but hopefully I’ve put myself in a position to play.”
England also travel to India next winter for a five-Test series, but Bess suggested that he needed to ensure he was playing regular first-class cricket before looking to the long term.
Bess’ Somerset contract is up at the end of the coming season, and while the club insist they intend to keep him at Taunton, Yorkshire have publicly signalled their intentions to sign him. Even if Leach is picked for every England Test squad next year, he would likely only miss three Championship games, which could leave Bess struggling for playing time.
“There’s a lot of cricket to come,” he said, “but I’ve got to get through the summer and see if I’m playing for Somerset first before I start worrying about India.”
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98
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