At the start of the third day’s play, there was an intriguing chat on commentary between Matt Prior and Kevin Pietersen – yes, TalkSPORT has bought the pair together; they’ll be pairing Ian Botham and Ian Chappell next – over the future of conventional off-spinners in Test cricket.
The conclusion, to paraphrase only a little, was they are an endangered breed. But, unlike the rhinoceros, Pietersen didn’t seem especially concerned with their preservation. Again, to paraphrase only a little, both he and Prior felt that, in the modern game, any off-spinner without some mystery or at least the ability to challenge both edges of the bat was likely to struggle.
But here, for the second Test in succession, Dom Bess supplied the case for the defence. Having admirably performed a holding role in Cape Town, he showed he could also perform a more attacking role here. Taking advantage of a dry surface, he showed the conventional skills – most of all control, but also subtle changes of angle and pace – still had a place in the modern game. Already he has become the first England spinner since Derek Underwood, in 1975, to claim the first five wickets in a Test innings and the third-youngest England spinner (after Pat Pocock and Underwood) to claim a five-for in Test history. If the rain relents, there is a good chance there will be more to come.
It’s true, Bess does not possess the eye-catching skills of Rashid Khan, Sunil Narine or Saqlain Mushtaq. He cannot turn the ball both ways. There is no doosra. Analysts will not be glued to their screens working out how makes the ball fizz and dip and, the cynics have suggested, he could only take wickets on the helpful surfaces of Taunton where, until today, six of his eight five-wicket hauls in first-class cricket had come. Only a few months ago, he was unable to get into the Somerset team and went on loan to Yorkshire.
But what he can do, at this stage of his career, is maintain his line and length. He has conceded only seven boundaries – and an average of 1.64 runs per over – in his 31 overs to date. As a result, he has kept the batsmen under pressure. And what he can do, at this stage of his career, is apply a series of small variations to lure batsmen into errors and take advantage of helpful surfaces.
The wicket of Faf du Plessis provided a fine example of this. The South Africa captain had just driven him for a couple of fours. Bess responded by dropping his arm a little lower, gaining just a little drift away from the batsman to draw him into a forward prod, only to turn the ball sharply off the pitch and take the inside edge. Ollie Pope, who looks terrific at short-leg, did the rest. Any off-spinner would have been happy with that.
There were other moments which showcased those subtle skills. By changing the seam position – including bowling with a scrambled seam – he manages to gain variation from some balls skidding on and others gripping and turning. Dean Elgar, who was probably the one man in the top five to play Mark Wood with any confidence, was defeated by just such a delivery: coming forward to one he expected to turn, he was slightly late as the ball skidded through a little quicker, taking his inside edge before ballooning off his pad to short-leg. Again, that’s fine bowling.
The ECB deserve some credit for Bess’ development. At the end of the season, they and Somerset agreed he should be given an extended break to clear his head after a sometimes frustrating few months. As he has previously said, he “lost a lot of confidence within my game” after “falling off the [England] radar a bit” after his brief spell in the England side in 2018.
Having allowed him that time, they identified the ideal coaches or mentors he could learn from – they were after spinners who relied on subtle variations rather than extravagant natural ability – and invited him on a spin bowling camp in Mumbai. Those coaches were Rangana Herath, the Sri Lanka left-arm spinner, and Richard Dawson, who played seven Tests for England as an off-spinner in the early years of this century.
These were wise choices. Herath, in particular, enjoyed an outstanding career as a traditional spinner. And somewhere along the way, Bess has learned that by concentrating on building pressure and by embracing those little variations, he gives himself the best chance of success. In these two Tests, he has looked a better bowler than he did when the Championship season finished in September. He also credited Jeetan Patel, who is with England as a spin bowling consultant, for his advice in helping him gain more bounce and pace.
“That ball to Faf was something I’d been working on with Herath,” Bass said. “I started around the wicket and he came at me quite a lot, so I tried to change the angle. I dropped my arm a little and it bit off the surface. It’s really nice to work on something and see it work.
“Then with Elgar – who I played with at Somerset – I wanted to make sure I was always challenging him. I looked to go a little under the ball and luckily it kicked on a bit. Some spun and some didn’t and Ollie Pope held a great catch.
“I’ll cherish this for a long time because I’ve worked very hard for days like this. Technically I’m getting a lot stronger through repetition. There’s still a lot of work to do but hopefully there’s a lot more to come.”
But before giving the ECB too much praise for their wisdom, it should be acknowledged that Bess was not in the original tour party. And as time goes on the selection of Matt Parkinson, who played four Championship games for Lancashire in 2019, looks ever more odd. It must have been painful to see an injury replacement – called up for the ill Jack Leach – who had not enjoyed the benefit of any warm-up games come into the side ahead of him, but, suffice to say, at this stage of his career, Parkinson looks far better suited to the white-ball game.
“I’m gutted for Leachy, he’s had such a tough time these last six weeks,” Bess said. “I know he’ll be happy for me. He’ll be working really hard to get back for the Sri Lanka tour. I’d love to play together. That would be a really nice touch if we could take wickets together for England as well as Somerset.”
Equally, the ECB might do well to reflect on the apparent crackdown on the surfaces at Taunton. It is surely no coincidence that England’s two first-choice spin bowling options have been developed on turning pitches – just as they were in Northampton, not so long ago – which provide scope for lots of bowling. Yes, there is a distinction to be made between acceptably turning surfaces and ones which offer variable bounce and excessive assistance. But it is also no coincidence that Bess responded to this relatively helpful surface in a calm and constructive manner; something which had not always been the case with Moeen Ali, for example, who sometimes looked more comfortable when expectations were lower. Not for the first time, the thought occurred that Somerset deserve credit not censure for their spin-friendly pitches
Bess had a couple of other factors in his favour here. The first, as was the case in Cape Town, is that this South Africa side is, generally, oddly passive against spin. Other sides – better sides – will surely look to hit Bess off his length. The other factor is that he was bowling when his side had 499 runs on the board. That makes a huge difference in terms of the fields set, the mentality of the batsmen and the time the fielding captain can stick with plans. It won’t always be this straightforward.
But everything suggests Bess has the character to cope with adversity. He has shrugged off being unable to get into his own county team, after all, and being called into this tour party without a competitive game since the end of the English season. He made a half-century on Test debut and followed it with 49 as nightwatchman in his second Test. And he’s still just 22. Suddenly Moeen’s exile does not seem quite as urgent an issue.
Fantasy Picks: Pack your team with West Indians
February 22: T20 World Cup – Thailand v West Indies, Perth
Our XI: Shemaine Campbelle, Stafanie Taylor, Hayley Mathews, Deandra Dottin, Naruemol Chaiwai, Nattakan Chantam, Anisa Mohammed, Suleeporn Laomi, Shakera Selman, Shamilia Connell, Chanida Sutthiruang
Captain: Deandra Dottin
West Indies’ most important player, Dottin had a wonderful T20 World Cup the last time and there is no reason why she wouldn’t sizzle again, even though she’s returning after a year out of action. Dottin has a batting strike rate of 125-plus and a couple of centuries in the format. With ball in hand, she has picked up 14 wickets in her last ten games.
Vice-captain: Stafanie Taylor
Captain Taylor is someone you can always bank on. A wily customer with the ball in hand and a hard-hitter who bats at No. 3, if she fails with the bat, she will fire with the ball more often than not. Her experience at the WBBL will come in handy as well.
Hayley Mathews: A hard-hitting batter up the order, Matthews can demolish attacks on her day. She is the only player other than Dottin to score a century in the format, and her usefulness with the ball shouldn’t be forgotten either.
Shakera Selman: The leader of the bowling pack for West Indies, Selman is capable of swinging the ball away from the right-handers and into the left-handers, at pace. Her pace, swing and accuracy could prove to be too much to handle for Thailand and that makes her a must-have.
Chanida Sutthiruang: The Thailand new-ball bowler was the highest wicket-taker in the World T20 Qualifiers in Scotland last year, picking up 12 wickets in five games including a four-wicket haul. Sutthiruang’s strike rate of 3.47 in T20s is quite unbelievable – you do not want to leave her out!
Shamilia Connell: Connell is a right-arm seamer who bowls with a lot of steam upfront and she could rattle the inexperienced Thailand top order.
Suleeporn Laomi: Another legspinner who has been successful in T20s, Laomi picked up six wickets in the Qualifiers last year at an economy of 3.16 in 18 overs.
Points to note
In the last five T20s at this venue, the top-three batters have scored nearly 71% of the runs. If the West Indies top three manage to come close to that, they will fetch you a lot of points.
‘We don’t want to play defensive cricket anymore’ – Sri Lanka’s Mickey Arthur
On Wednesday, ahead of his first ODI series as Sri Lanka coach Mickey Arthur spoke about players being handed down well-defined roles within the team. On Friday, on the eve of the first one-dayer against West Indies, he went into a little more detail about what those roles were.
Unsurprisingly, the two wristspinners in the squad – legspinner Wanindu Hasaranga and left-arm wristspinner Lakshan Sandakan – will be expected to make breakthroughs through the middle overs. Sri Lanka were one of the few teams without a reliable wristspinner during last year’s ODI World Cup. With a T20 World Cup later this year, the team is looking to fill that void.
“The key to the wristspiners, and to playing both of them together, is genuine wicket-taking options for us through the middle,” Arthur said. “That is the key, and that’s what wins you white-ball cricket games now. We want to play that brand of cricket. We are looking to attack and looking to take wickets. I think that’s the future for this team. I think in terms of our preparation, that’s been the message. The message has been around attacking. We don’t want to play defensive cricket anymore. That will be reflected in our selection. If the two wristspinners can do the job for us tomorrow, that will be fantastic, because they will take wickets.
“Wanindu is a fantastic cricketer. The way he bowls – the control of his length has been amazing. I’ve really marveled at watching him go about his business. That, coupled with his batting ability, and his fielding, he’s making a real name for himself. Sandakan, obviously, has been around the system a lot longer.”
On the batting front, Sri Lanka have a clear idea who their top six is. Each of those players has a specific job.
“The thing about our batting is that there is a license at the top of the order,” Arthur said. “You’ve got Kusal Perera and Avishka Fernando at the top of the order – dynamic. Kusal Perera will bat three. Avishka will open with Dimuth Karunaratne. They will have a licence to get us away in that Powerplay period. And 4, 5, 6 is Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews and Dhananjaya de Silva. Those are the guys who we want to control those overs 11-40. And then hopefully, we’ll have the likes of one of them, a Thisara Perera and a Wanindu, to finish it. If we script the perfect game, that’s how it would work out. We know it doesn’t always happen.”
Where fitness and fielding have been major areas of concern for Sri Lanka over the past two years, Arthur also suggested there has been substantial improvement on both fronts.
“I was watching us go through our fielding yesterday. Our fielding has improved massively. That’s testimony to the players and their attitudes. They’ve bought into where we want to go. And the coaching from Shane McDermott around that has been fantastic. We’ve been big on the split step. We’ve been big on trigger movements on the field, just to trigger the guys into action. To see the whole field moving is a massive improvement on where we were when we went to India with that T20 side [in January].
“If you are fitter you can field better and move better. Your ability and speed to get to the ball is much better.”
How Poonam Yadav bamboozled Australia
Australia were cruising at 2 for 67 chasing 133 with Alyssa Healy rolling on 51 from just 34 balls. Poonam Yadav didn’t bowl in the first nine overs and Healy hit her fourth ball for six over long-on. But the legspinner changed the game with a dazzling spell. She bamboozled Australia’s much-vaunted middle order to take 4 for 19 and guide India to victory. She nearly took a hat-trick with Taniya Bhatia dropping a tough caught-behind chance from Jess Jonassen. Here’s how Alex Malcolm and Deivarayan Muthu described the action on ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball commentary.
9.5 Poonam Yadav to Healy, OUT, caught and bowled! Just a 63kph leg break does the trick. This was a better length, Healy came down to it but wasn’t to the pitch, tried to work to long-on, closed the face, got a leading edge and it floated back to Yadav!
AJ Healy c & b Poonam Yadav 51 (35b 6×4 1×6) SR: 145.71
11.3 Poonam Yadav to Haynes, OUT, Poonam strikes another blow! Lobs up a wrong’un, it lures the batter out and goes past the outside edge. Delightful flight and India are back in this. Bhatia continues her fine shift behind the stumps
RL Haynes st †Bhatia b Poonam Yadav 6 (8b 0x4 0x6) SR: 75.00
11.4 Poonam Yadav to Perry, OUT, Poonam is on a roll, she sends back Perry for a golden duck. She lobs up another wrong’un, Perry dares to step out. She is done in by the variation. Poonam sneaks through the gate and hits leg stump. What a double-strike from Poonam
EA Perry b Poonam Yadav 0 (1b 0x4 0x6) SR: 0.00
11.5 Poonam Yadav to Jonassen, no run, Nearly a hat-trick for Poonam. Bhatia, the keeper, drops it in the end. Fairly difficult chance for the keeper. Poonam lobs up another googly, draws an outside edge as the batter pushes away from the body, the keeper follows the ball, but it pops out of the gloves
13.5 Poonam Yadav to Jonassen, OUT, 58kph, tossed up on middle and breaks away sharply, yet another wrong’un. She finds the edge again. Top work from Bhatia this time, after denying Poonam the hat-trick in her previous over. She snaffles it and sends Jonassen back. She dared to sweep against the break and paid the price
JL Jonassen c †Bhatia b Poonam Yadav 2 (6b 0x4 0x6) SR: 33.33
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