It says something for Dom Bess’s impatience that, on the brink of a Test debut at the age of 20, he describes himself as “a late developer”.
It says something for his drive, too, that aged just 14, he made the decision to leave the Sidmouth club with which his family had been associated for many years – his father, grandfather and cousins all play or played there – in search of first-team opportunities. It may not seem so now, but that was a somewhat controversial move at the time. A move that had some muttering their disapproval.
And it says plenty about England’s desperation to find a Test-quality spinner that, if Bess plays on Thursday – and he surely will; England don’t need five seamers – he will be England’s third debutant specialist spinner within four Tests and the youngest specialist finger-spinner in their history. Yes, he owes it in part to injuries to both Mason Crane (who made his debut in Sydney) and Jack Leach (who made his debut in Christchurch), but the fact is England are taking a chance on a man not guaranteed a place in the Somerset side who has played only five first-class (and three Championship) games away from Taunton, and has never played at Lord’s. It’s a gamble.
Or, as Bess prefers to look at, an opportunity. And, while you can never entirely tell, one that seems unlikely to over-awe him.
Following on from his impressive first-class debut against Pakistan less than two years ago – he had the confidence to pick Younis Khan’s brains after play – he then claimed five-fors in his first two Championship matches (against Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire), another on debut for England Lions and making a maiden first-class century when selected for the MCC to play against the Champion county (Essex) in Barbados a few weeks ago.
He has seven five-fors in his 16 first-class games, which is only two fewer than Moeen Ali in 179 first-class games. In between times, he impressed the England management with his athleticism and character when given the opportunity to train with the full squad.
That character shone through when Bess was obliged to give his first press conferences to the international ‘pack’ at Lord’s on Tuesday.
While some have wilted in that spotlight – and it really can be quite intimidating – Bess was open, engaging and witty. Having taken the call informing him of his selection in Ikea, he still hasn’t bought the sofa he was after – he left immediately to tell his mum and dad. However, he good-naturedly suggested he should have “a quiet word” with the store in light of the “bit of press” exposure his comments brought them.
“Not yet,” he replied when asked if he was the new ‘face’ of Ikea. “But I hope so. My girlfriend would be happy.”
His mum, he says, would prefer he is referred to as Dominic rather than Dom.
More serious questions were dealt with equally comfortably. His relationship with the unfortunate Leach? “He’s a top man and we’re very good mates. I look up to him and he is delighted that it was me who replaced him although obviously absolutely gutted.”
His approach? “To enjoy it!”
His spin-bowling role-model? “Graeme Swann. He’d always attack the stumps which brought a lot of dismissals into play.”
There may be some serious lessons to learn from Bess’s development, too. Certainly it is intriguing that the last time a pair of quality spinners developed at the same county – Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann – they did so, in part, through the spin-friendly surfaces created at their club, Northants.
Now that history has repeated itself – Somerset’s Taunton pitch has been famously (some would say infamously) spin-friendly in recent years – it might well be worth reflecting on county cricket’s apparent aversion to such surfaces.
Leach and Bess – having benefited from a high volume of overs through playing on a turning surface – could well be bowling in tandem for England by the end of year. Those who have moaned about the pitches at Taunton in recent years might well be myopically holding back the development of the national side.
It is noticeable, too, that Bess and Leach have played very little white-ball cricket. Leach has never played a first-team T20 match (and has played only 16 List A games), while Bess has played only one T20 and six List A matches.
The relevance? While white-ball spinners are inclined – obliged, even – to fire the ball in pretty fast and flat and very often on the legs, the red-ball spinner has more scope to bowl with flight and a more attacking line. Trying to learn such different trades at the same time is not easy.
“I’ve only played one T20 and six List A games, so it’s interesting to think that maybe this opportunity has come around because I’ve just done red-ball,” he said. “And there’s a massive gap between white- and red-ball. In T20 people are just trying to haul you out of the park every ball. That’s when you go quite flat. That could potentially be why.”
With Bess a fine fielder and improving batsman – if Chris Woakes misses out in this match, Bess could bat at No. 8 – there will, no doubt, be a temptation to play him in more white-ball games. Perhaps for both country and county. And, understandably, he is keen to play in all formats.
But, if Test cricket really is the priority and pinnacle – as we are often told – might it make sense to delay Bess’s involvement for a few more months at least?
Such matters can wait. Bess has a wonderful opportunity to impress in the coming days. And, while a pitch expected to offer him little and a line-up which traditionally plays spin well (or at least far better than the average county player) offers the prospect of a steep learning curve, he gives every indication that he will relish every moment of it.