Dom Bess stakes long-term England claim after five-wicket haul
Off-spinner Bess reaps benefits of working hard and bowling intelligently as he shreds South Africa's top order
Last Updated: 19/01/20 8:23am
Dom Bess is certainly profiting from Jack Leach's misfortune.
It's not how he'd ideally like it, with the spinners good pals and team-mates at Somerset, but Leach's injury in 2018 led to Bess' England debut and his recent illness earned him an unexpected recall.
Drafted in for the two-Test series at home to Pakistan 18 months ago after Leach sustained a broken thumb, Bess' batting outshone his off-breaks.
He scored a half-century on his bow at Lord's, as England - albeit briefly - threatened to deny Pakistan victory. He then hit 49 as nightwatchman at Headingley a week later in a series-tying win.
His bowling, by contrast, was less impressive. He went wicketless in London and two of his three scalps in Leeds came as Pakistan batsmen skied him to fielders on the slog.
Bess was very much a batting off-spinner rather than an off-spinner who bats, but that has flipped around on the evidence of his Test match and a bit in South Africa.
That is partly because his three efforts with the bat have yielded one run each - Bess bagging a pair in Cape Town and one in Port Elizabeth.
Mainly, though, it's because he has improved with the ball, showing so by wiping out the Proteas' top five at St George's Park after performing a containing role in the 189-run victory at Newlands.
The stats make great reading for the young tweaker.
The first England spinner to take the first five wickets in a Test innings since Derek Underwood against Australia at Adelaide in 1975.
The third-youngest England spinner to take a Test five-for, after Pat Pocock (21 years, 256 days) and Underwood (22 years, 63 days).
The first England off-spinner to take a Test five-for overseas since Moeen Ali against Bangladesh in Dhaka in 2016.
Just the third overseas spinner to take five wickets in an innings in Port Elizabeth, after esteemed Australian pair Richie Benaud and Nathan Lyon.
And, more importantly for Bess, his first five-wicket haul in the Test arena, in a series he was not initially part of and only entered with Leach struck down by gastroenteritis and flu.
What will please him most, though, is how he is delivering the ball and how he has thought on his feet to pick up his wickets.
I'm gutted for Leachy but that's how opportunities come and you've got to take them and hopefully it's the start of something longer. There has been frustration not playing at Somerset but that means at times I have to bite my tongue and get on with it, keep bowling, keep working.
Bess' dismissal of Pieter Malan on Friday evening was a cheap one, with the South Africa opener chipping a fairly innocuous ball tamely back to the bowler in his follow-through, but his next four scalps showed skill, shrewdness and adaptability.
Zubayr Hamza clipped to short leg as Bess came around the wicket and attacked the rough, while Dean Elgar diverted a ball that skidded on to silly point via pad.
A change of tack then paid dividends as he won a battle of wits with Faf du Plessis - the South Africa captain drilled two fuller balls from around the wicket for four before then flicking a shorter delivery from over the wicket to Pope at short leg.
The five-wicket haul could then have come sooner than it did for Bess, with Root grassing a routine chance at slip as nightwatchman Anrich Nortje edged a ball that went on with the arm and Pope then unable to cling on one-handed as Rassie van der Dussen knocked a turning ball to bat-pad.
No matter, though, as two balls after Pope's drop, Bess bowled Van der Dussen off an inside edge when the batsman became cramped for room as he aimed to cut a ball that spun into him.
Bess is no stranger to turning tracks, playing as he does at 'Ciderabad' in Somerset but Nasser Hussain was still mighty impressed by his tactics, having worked with former Sri Lanka spinner Rangana Herath and Lions coach Richard Dawson on a recent training camp in Mumbai.
You have to give credit to the ECB to put him through the training programme and the lad himself. He has worked with Herath and Dawson, travelled the world trying to see people and it's a good story that if you do work at your game and assess where you are, you can get back in and improve.
"He is brought up on pitches like this at Taunton where it spins, so he feels very confident. I like the way he has used his crease," former England captain Hussain said of Bess.
"Shane Warne always talks about using the four or five yards from one side of the wicket to the other, rather than the same spot time after time. Not only has he used his crease, round and over the wicket, but has dropped his arm and undercut a few. It's been really good."
On Bess' seam position, which the spinner apparently only noticed was scrambled in his first incarnation as Test cricketer after watching video analysis and is now at 45 degrees, Hussain added: "He felt when he was playing on a spinning pitch at Taunton that seam position was not an issue as it would hit the pitch and go, but on a Test pitch, when you need drop and drift, that seam position needed to be perfect.
"I think as a spinner these days, in all forms of cricket, with players generally trying to belt you, you need to be quite confident and he looks that way. When I see him around the traps, he looks a sparky kind of guy, who really wants to play at this level."
The irony with Bess, of course, is that while he has twice taken Leach's spot in the England team, he is often kept out of the Somerset side by the same man.
We have seen someone who has subtle differences on the crease and switches in arm position. From mid-crease to wide, he has angled the ball in with a bit of drift and plenty of revs to leg stump but then been clever enough and good enough to get it to hold its line and bring both edges into play.
Bess made only seven County Championship appearances for Somerset last season and had to go out on loan to Yorkshire to get another four games in the bank.
Should Leach's illness abate come the start of the season, Bess could be playing second fiddle again and with Yorkshire having already signed South Africa's Keshav Maharaj and Indian's Ravichandran Ashwin for periods of the 2020 season, that avenue may have been cut off.
It will be interesting to see whether the ECB will - or indeed can - do anything to ensure Bess is a first-choice spinner somewhere in 2020, with seven rounds of Championship fixtures scheduled before the first home Test against Pakistan starts on June 4.
Bess is Somerset's No 2 spinner - but, right now, he is England's No 1.
Watch day four of the third Test between South Africa and England, live on Sky Sports Cricket from 7.30am on Sunday.