We’ve all had days like what Dom Bess had in Ahmedabad on Friday.
A day when everything that could possibly go wrong ends up going wrong. A day when existence feels like a burden. A day when the inner you keeps yelling that you’re not good enough. A day when you feel like you let everyone you know down.
There is a reason why, despite Bess coming under immense criticism, there have been a plethora of people rushing to the defence of the youngster. Because everyone, at some point in their life or career, has been Dom Bess. A lot of people can relate to what he went through - spiritually. The difference, though, is that Dom Bess is an international cricketer. A normal man or woman could endure a catastrophic day and return to work the very next morning like nothing happened; no one would know. But when you’re an international cricketer, that’s not the case. As Bess found out on Friday, there really is nowhere to hide.
Such was the extent of the horror day Bess encountered that, as a viewer, you could feel second-hand pain and embarrassment. There were times on Day 2 you wanted to enter the ground via the television screen and give the youngster a comforting hug, while, equally, there were also passages of play when you subconsciously found yourself praying for Bess to not dish out full-tosses - not necessarily because you wanted India to lose a wicket, but because you wanted to see him succeed. Badly. That ultimately never happened, and that the ignominy extended into the morning of Day 3, was a cruel reminder of how thick sport sometimes can be; how redemptions and fairytale endings are never guaranteed.
The fallout of Bess’ annihilation in Ahmedabad has been bad. As is always the case almost all the time, in this social media era we live in, people have latched on to the 23-year-old. Heavy criticism has been directed towards the off-spinner and many experts, too, have held him solely responsible for handing India the Test on a platter. And it is understandable. Bess came to bowl at a time when none of the English bowlers essentially could do no wrong but, flabbergastingly, found it impossible to bowl two decent deliveries in a row. Having picked only 3 specialist bowlers, England needed Bess to be at his very best, but by his 6th over it was evident that, at least on current form, it was Root who was the visitors’ most reliable spinner. And yes, this without a tinge of irony.
By now, thousands of people have pulled their hair strands out trying to decipher what exactly has gone wrong with Bess. His full-toss-mania in the second innings in Chennai was seen as a product of fatigue, but his first two balls in this Test - a no-ball followed by a half-tracker which Rohit failed to put away - made it abundantly clear that Bess’ struggles stemmed from a bigger underlying issue which is not just lack of glucose in his body.
Murali Karthik and L Sivaramakrishnan, on air on Day 2, spent almost an entire hour trying to decode the Bess mystery. “How could a bowler who looked like a million bucks the very first time he bowled in the tour, suddenly turn into someone who would struggle to get a gig even at the club level?” they wondered. They were never able to figure out why. It, to this very moment, remains a question that is bugging everyone who has seen Bess' fall from grace.
The most common theory that is floating around, at least in the English media, is that Bess has been hard-done-by by the English management. His axing from the second Test, the subsequent controversy surrounding the availability of Moeen Ali and the lack of trust and faith the management showed in Bess by omitting him from the pink-ball Test has convinced several people that Bess perhaps might have succeeded had the ECB, the management and his captain Joe Root shown more faith in him. That England threw Bess under the bus and that the youngster is a victim of severe mismanagement.
There might be a very small element of truth to these aforementioned statements, yes. But to pretend like Bess was a flawless ornament who was shattered in a millisecond owing to mishandling would be naive and ignorant. For this was always coming; this was always bound to happen. Bess was a ticking time bomb - it was just England’s misfortune that he ended up exploding when the series was on the line.
In lead up to the India Tests, Bess took 12 wickets in 2 Tests versus Sri Lanka. He struck once every 42.5 balls - the best among all spinners in the series - he picked a five-wicket haul and he finished with an average of 21.25 which was, again, by some distance the best tally for any spinner in that series. For those who did not watch the off-spinner bowl in the series - and you suspect a vast majority of those pinning the blame on the ECB for Bess’ implosion might not have watched Bess bowl versus Sri Lanka - these looked like figures that were godly.
Yet these were numbers that were flattering. Frankly put, Bess was by some distance the worst spinner in that series. As CricViz’s ‘expected wicket’ model suggested, the balls Bess bowled were expected to give him seven wickets at 35.9. In reality, however, he ended up scalping 12 at 21.25. His 5/30 in the first innings of the first Test was, in fact, the worst five-wicket haul - in terms of expected wickets (0.55) - statistically, in Test history. This basically indicates that while he bowled ‘alright’, his figures were made to look way better than they actually should have been owing to a cocktail of poor batting and a big slice of luck.
And he enjoyed this luck in the first innings of the first Chennai Test, too. That he bowled an absolute peach of a delivery to outfox Virat Kohli cannot be taken away from him, but, barring that, Bess’ wickets tally were inflated by some extraordinary events that were not down to his brilliance.
Rahane got out to a full toss - Joe Root took a wrong-handed blinder - while Pujara pulled a half-tracker straight into the body of the forward short-leg fielder, which ricocheted and ballooned into the hands of the fielder at short mid-wicket. These two dismissals added two more wickets to Bess’ tally, but it was hardly his brilliance which triggered them. Post Pujara’s dismissal in the first innings, he ended up leaking 87 off 18 overs at an ER of 4.83. The full-tosses, half-trackers, and half-volleys made frequent appearances in the second innings, where he was taken apart for 50 runs off just 8 overs.
So his omission from the second and third Tests, and the drama surrounding Moeen, had nothing to do with Bess’ horror show on Day 2 - by late Day 3 of the first Test it was evident that he’d lost his rhythm.
But England always knew that picking Bess was going to be a gamble. It was a gamble in Chennai and it was also a gamble in Ahmedabad. But while on the first instance it paid off, in the fourth Test, however, it ended up costing them. Bess - the third specialist bowler in the side - serving Christmas presents for fun meant that Root had to assume first-spinner duties. Eventually, the England skipper ended up bowling one more over than the specialist spinner and a vast majority of those came against set batsmen; Bess bowled more only once England realized the game had already slipped away from them.
This was not something new for England and Root, though. In the first innings of the second Test in Galle, an atrocious showing from Bess forced the England skipper to overbowl his talisman pacer, Anderson, in conditions that were flaccid. Bess gave his skipper no control whatsoever and hence, as a result, a 38-year-old Anderson ended up bowling 3 more overs than the 23-year-old on the first day of a flat sub-continent wicket. An absence of quality and ruthlessness in Sri Lanka’s batting meant that England got away on that occasion, but India made sure that they made the Three Lions pay.
Ultimately, though, that Bess is struggling should not come as a surprise. He could barely get a gig in the first XI for his county side, Somerset, when he was thrust into the side out of the blue against South Africa last year and it was only because of his unexpected fine showing there - 8 wickets in 2 games @ 25.75, including a five-fer - that England decided to stick by him and invest in him. His disappointing home season in 2020 - 8 wickets in 8 innings @ 55.50 - was masked by the excellence of Woakes, Broad, and Anderson, but, as England have learnt now, you could only hide a glaring flaw for so long.
What Bess needs now is County Cricket and a lot of it. That he has struck a deal with Yorkshire, where he’ll be assured of a place in the starting XI, is a good start, but it would be imperative for the ECB to just let him learn his trade and develop, and not attempt to fast-track him into the first XI yet again. If there’s one big takeaway from these past two months, it’s that Bess is far from being a finished product. There is undoubted talent, yes, but to thrive in international cricket, particularly as a finger-spinner, one would need consistency in plenty. Right now, Bess, unfortunately, has none.
What’s assured though is that these experiences - though scarring - will ultimately mould Bess into a stronger character and a better bowler. With both bat and ball in hand, Bess has shown that he is someone who can ‘make things happen’, and if history is anything to go by, then a player like Bess - an x-factor; a difference maker on his day - will certainly make a roaring comeback in the near future.