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Dom Bess storms to centre stage after a whirlwind journey to the top

Jonathan Liew
·5-min read

Dom Bess is at school. He’s reading out loud in class. He’s never been the most gifted of students, but he tries hard and desperately wants to do well. But now – for some reason – the words aren’t coming out. His classmates snigger. His teacher tells him to keep going. Still the words refuse to come. There’s no escape. Breath quickening, cheeks burning with embarrassment and wet with tears, Bess breaks down.

A few years later, in 2018, Bess and his girlfriend are in Ikea looking at sofas for their new home. His phone rings. It’s Ed Smith, England’s national selector. Bess may only be 20 years old, a raw talent with just 16 first-class appearances. But Jack Leach has broken a thumb, Moeen Ali is burnt out, and so Bess – not even Somerset’s first‑choice spinner – is speculatively thrust into the crucible of a Test debut at Lord’s.

Related: England require 36 to beat Sri Lanka after Jack Leach shines with five wickets

The following year, Bess is sitting in an office behind the dressing room at Taunton, crying his eyes out. Since those two Tests the previous summer, he has lost his England place, lost his Somerset place, lost himself. A few months after that, he is on the outfield at Cape Town, beer in hand, savouring a Test match win with his mates Zak Crawley and Matt Parkinson, and marvelling at just how quickly this game can change.

There are some spinners who look like they were born to spin. Nonchalant, natural, at ease. As if the ball is simply a fizzing extension of their hand. Bess, by contrast, examines it as if it were a fascinating toy, a piece of alien rock. He tosses it uncertainly from hand to hand. And then he runs in: not in the manner of an artist or a maestro, but a man desperate to turn the page and see what happens next.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Bess has received plenty of criticism in Galle this week for his inconsistency: the variable lengths, the occasional four-balls. By his own admission he hasn’t performed brilliantly. And yet here he is, taking eight wickets and probably bowling England to a rare Test victory in Asia.

There was a CricViz stat doing the rounds on Thursday. Apparently, the “expected wickets” value of his first‑innings haul of five for 30, based on the deliveries he bowled, was just 0.18. As if to underline the point, in his first over on Sunday, Lasith Embuldeniya plopped an innocuous length ball straight to cover. All of which feeds into the prevailing narrative about Bess: that he is a bowler riding on blind luck, who will inevitably be exposed by better batsmen in India and Australia.

Partly, of course, Bess is a victim of the curious moral distinction between “deserved” and “undeserved” wickets. Bowled through the gate: deserved. Bowled off a bottom-edged pull: lucky. Caught behind: deserved. Sliced to point: lucky. But what if there’s something else going on here? What if Bess is weirdly good at encouraging batsmen into bad shots? To take on more risk than is good for them?

One length delivery is not the same as another. Bess is not a big turner of the ball but he delivers with a deceptively high arm, giving him bounce and dip. This makes him relatively easy to defend but dangerous to attack. The most valuable wickets in Test cricket are top-six batsmen on between 10 and 40, just as they are beginning to settle and bed in. For Bess, such wickets account for 56% of his tally (15 out of 27). For Leach, the figure is 28% (11 out of 40).

Perhaps the fact that Bess always gives you a chance gives him a chance. This is the part of spin bowling that numbers barely illuminate: showmanship, misdirection, timing. And maybe the reason Bess is so good at it is because of his own experience of cricket and life.

Consider again Bess’s journey into international cricket from 2018-20: the spectacular rise, the spectacular disappearance, the gnawing fear of ending his career as a pub quiz answer. And then, suddenly and quite by chance, he’s back at the mercy of English cricket and its wild, incoherent expectations. Here, bowl a few with the old ball to give the seamers a rest. Here, carry the drinks. Here, win a Test match for England on a raging turner. If you’re a young, anxiety‑prone cricketer, how do you make sense of this trajectory? And what sort of player do we think emerges from it?

Related: England's Jack Leach says he is spurred on by his year in Test wilderness

Perhaps, ultimately, one who sees this game as wild, windy and liable to change violently in an instant. This is doubly true in the subcontinent, where wickets fall in clusters and entire Tests can crumble in a session, where nothing happens for ages and then everything happens at once. And it is surely just as true of life itself. Bess refers to his mental health struggles in terms of “triggers”. Bad weather can bring it on. So, too, darkness and closed doors. One brings two brings three.

If life has taught Bess anything about cricket, perhaps it is that the only way of ploughing through the maelstrom is not by fighting or dwelling on the game’s fluctuations but accepting and embracing them. By acknowledging that not everything happens to a pattern. He is a young player with bags of talent and precious little experience, and these things can go either way. Sometimes all you can do is turn the page and see what happens next.