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England in Sri Lanka 2021

England in Sri Lanka 2021

The phrase “can’t wait,” comes up frequently when talking to Dom Bess. At least six times in a 20-minute conversation.

He “can’t wait” for the Test series in Sri Lanka to start; he “can’t wait” to bowl on more responsive wickets and, most of all he “can’t wait” to renew his spin-bowling partnership with former Somerset teammate, Jack Leach.

That’s understandable. After a summer spent playing a supporting role on England’s green and pleasant land – well, pleasant if you’re a seam bowler – he is now facing the prospect of six successive Tests in Asia. The understudy is about to promoted to top billing. Well, top-billing alongside the man who has been competing for a place with him for club and country over much of the last three or four years.

ALSO READ: Leach admits Covid concerns meant he feared for Test future

It’s not hard to see what the England management see in Bess. He is an excellent fielder, he is a good enough batsman to have made a half-century on Test debut and he gives every impression of being an irrepressible character. There’s a lot to like.

Some young players, knowing the starring role into which they are about to be thrust, would become anxious about the responsibility. Especially after an underwhelming first day of action on tour; Bess claimed 1-59 in 16 overs in Hambantota learning, at first hand, that Joe Root is a very accomplished player of spin bowling.

But he laughs off the experience. Reasoning, quite rightly, that conditions in Hambantota – where the pitch was oddly green and provided copious assistance to the seamers – would be nothing like those expected in Galle, he dismisses both his own modest figures and the fact that Team Buttler were reduced, at one stage, to 48-6. “You shouldn’t stress,” he says. “We’re not. It was very good bowling. It’s quite clever from the Sri Lankans in terms of the pitch. I won’t be thinking too much about it.”

The only reservation about Bess is whether his bowling is ready. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just that he is, very clearly, still learning his trade. And, right now, it’s not entirely clear what his weapons are. Most of all, his stock ball doesn’t generally cause the batsmen to adjust as much as you might expect with a Test spinner. There’s little of the drift and dip of Moeen Ali or Graeme Swann; there’s not the spin or the control of Nathan Lyon.

Remember when Shan Masood hit Bess’s stock ball over mid-wicket and back over his head? It’s hard to imagine such a limited batsman even attempting such a stroke against those other off-spinners. In an ideal world, Bess would probably have another couple of years playing lots of first-class cricket before he was asked to keep England’s slim hopes of reaching the World Test Championship final alive.

But we’re not in an ideal world. Adil Rashid is nursing his shoulder back to health; Moeen’s career, even before Covid-19, has been in decline and Leach has been struggling with his health. With English cricket no longer providing much of a breeding ground for young spinners, England have been persuaded to invest in Bess in the hope he will learn on the job and graduate into the real thing.

Maybe if there was an absolutely outstanding specialist spin candidate, the England management would pick them. But as there isn’t and given how many days England spinners are resigned to playing peripheral roles, it probably makes sense to pick a player who can find a way to contribute even when not taking wickets.

This is not entirely new territory for Bess. When he was called into Somerset’s Championship team, he had a modest record in the Second XI Championship with just 24 wickets in 20 matches at an average of 48. But, playing on turning wickets at Taunton, he soon gained confidence and benefited from a volume of overs that would be the envy of young spinners around the rest of the country.

It’s not impossible that history could repeat itself at a higher level. The signs from South Africa, where he provided a vital holding role in Cape Town and claimed a maiden five-wicket haul in Port Elizabeth, is promising.

And that’s why they like him. They know he’s going to have some tough days. And they believe he will react phlegmatically, learn from them and be that much better the next day.

“We were chatting for ages, joking about one day playing for England. Hopefully that could be next week.”

Dom Bess on the prospect of playing with Jack Leach in Sri Lanka

If, as expected, Bess and Leach play in Galle, it will be the first time they have played a Test together. For two men who have competed for a place at both England and Somerset level without ever losing intensity or falling out, it will be a special occasion. Not so long ago, they were dreaming of this day.

“I remember rooming with Leachy in the Somerset second team,” Bess says. “It must have been in 2016 and we were playing down at Kent. We were chatting for ages, joking about one day playing for England. Hopefully that could be next week.

“We have always had a battle between each other. But to get back on the park with him hopefully, and bowl at either end, is something I am certainly going to cherish.

“Myself and Leachy has been a really interesting one. The situation has only made us both grow as spinners and people because being good mates as well, getting dropped or getting picked, and vice versa… it is very tough.

“It’s taken its toll. In those few seconds when I have been picked and ecstatic, and then when he got injured and I made my debut. It was such a strange situation. I don’t think a lot of people will have gone through that kind of thing with a very close mate.

“I only think it’s going to be good for us. We will relish the challenge of being on the pitch together, hopefully in conditions that suit us. And it takes away about wanting to be number one because it’s all about the team first.

“It’s going to be a really exciting prospect but I don’t think anything changes in what we do as a pair. We have a great partnership. It’s really exciting. The main goal is winning as a collective. I can’t wait.”

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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