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Cricket news - Bess in the business
"I absolutely loved that day [in Port Elizabeth], it'll stay with me for the rest of my life"
Dom Bess leans back in his chair like he owns the place. His right arm rests on the seat beside him. His feet aren't propped on the table in front but they might as well be. Part Tony Soprano, part Dennis the Menace, every line he serves to the gathered press oozes with innate chutzpah.
He has just taken a first Test five-wicket haul at 22 years old, a toddler's age for a spinner at the elite level. At St George's Park in Port Elizabeth, he ran through South Africa's top order with bewitching ease. Pieter Malan, Zubayr Hamza, Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen all fell to Bess' right arm to leave the hosts reeling at 109 for five in reply to England's first innings score of 499 for nine declared. Once Bess was done, the innings and 53-run deficit that followed carried a sense of inevitability.
More than two months later, Bess understands that he has to let go.
"I absolutely loved that day, it's a day that will stay with me for the rest of my life, but I know I'm not secure in the Test team," Bess told Cricbuzz ahead of England's two-Test series against Sri Lanka, now just another casualty in the long list of sports events cancelled as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. "I could have a few bad performances and be gone."
Bess knows only too well how fleeting this line of work can be. Only fortuitous twists of fate meant he took part in Port Elizabeth, and in Cape Town a few weeks earlier, where he plugged up an end while bagging crucial wickets in a 189-run win.
That Bess was flown to South Africa as a replacement for his Somerset team-mate and mentor Jack Leach is well documented, and that is a major chapter in his developing story that we'll return to later. But before that sudden rise, the kid from Devon in England's south-west returns to a very recent time when he came close to falling into oblivion.
"We were playing at home against Yorkshire [in the 2019 County Championship] and I almost pulled out of the game," Bess said, speaking publicly about the incident for the first time. "I sat with my psychologist and I just broke down crying. We were batting first and all of a sudden we were three down and I had to get my pads on and get ready to play. That was scary for me as a player knowing I wasn't in the right space but still had to do my job."
For a young spinner who had made his debut against Pakistan just the year before, as cover for the injured Leach, this was a remarkable and unexpected low. He struggled in his opening match at Lord's, conceding 88 runs across 20 overs and barely threatened in a nine-wicket defeat. It was his 57 in England's second innings as much as anything he did with the ball that earned him another crack.
In an innings victory at Headingley he played his part. An attractive 49 as nightwatchman in England's only dig supplemented a return of three for 33 in Pakistan's second. But with Adil Rashid once again available for the home series against India and a glut of all-rounders making his contribution with the bat an unnecessary luxury, he was axed from the side.
With Leach then impressing in the post World Cup Ashes, Bess convinced himself that he had wasted his one and only opportunity.
"I stayed in my own head. I was up and down the country. It was a big build up of three years of overwork. I struggled mentally and I wasn't happy. I started to notice it away from cricket. With all the dedication and commitment I was putting in the game, the thought that it might not go right was eating me inside. I couldn't accept bad days in the field. I soon started to not enjoy the game."
With the help of the Professional Cricketers' Association, the organisation that represents the interests of first-class players in England and Wales, as well as leading figures in Somerset, Bess learned that it was, "OK not to be OK," as he puts it.
A guiding shepherd through this tumultuous period was Marcus Trescothick, the former England opener who has become a beacon for cricketers struggling with their mental health.
"Tres was amazing," Bess explained. "So was [Somerset head coach] Jason Kerr. A load of them helped me. So did some of the young lads who are some of my best mates. I needed to remember what it was like to be a normal 22-year-old."
Beers with the boys became just as important as hours in the nets. So too did watching his good friend Jack Maunder play scrum-half for his beloved Exeter Chiefs in the Premiership Rugby league. Away from the glare and the scrutiny, Bess gained perspective from those who have never viewed him as anything more than a cheeky lad with a sharp tongue and a quick smile.
"You have to grow quickly in professional sport but at 22 you're still developing," Bess said. "But if you take too long you might not be around for a long time. With an ego, you set yourself up to fail. If you have an ego people will jump on you. That brings you back down to earth."
With renewed perspective and his desire rekindled, Bess completed the 2019 domestic season with 26 wickets from 11 matches, including four on loan at Yorkshire. Then a trip to India with the Lions for a spin camp brought him in contact with Rangana Herath.
"To be honest, the media have blown it up," Bess said of his relationship with the Sri Lankan with 433 Test wickets. "What I hear is that I spent months with him. It was a few days but I chatted with him with a voice recorder about his beliefs. I got a lot out of it. I wrote everything down and worked on it. It wasn't rocket science but was subtle and made sense and improved my game."
Small adjustments in his wrists and fingers broadened his repertoire. Shifts in the angle of his arm and his position in the crease meant he could bowl different deliveries with the same action.
Take his dismissal of Faf du Plessis in Port Elizabeth. The South Africa captain had just hit two consecutive fours after skipping down the track. The Proteas had vowed to dominate the young spinner and the alpha of the group was leading by example. Sensing his opponent would continue to press the accelerator, Bess bowled with a lower arm and darted one in. He beat Du Plessis in the air and had him caught at short leg.
"You have to be smart as a spinner," Bess said. "I can't knock a guy's head off with a 90 mph bumper but I can get in his head. You have to play on people's egos at times. You can be imposing in different ways.
"That comes with maturity. They say spinners reach their straps around 27 because they understand their game more. That excites me because if I'm 22 and I've got five years to go, I must be doing something right."
Part of his development has been fuelled by Leach, who at 28 with eight years as a first-class cricketer, is a veteran by comparison. "He's competitive," Bess said. "He drives my standards. I wouldn't be where I am now without Leachy."
Leach suffers from Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder for which he takes regular medication that weakens his immune system. After the first Test in New Zealand before the trip to South Africa, he contracted gastroenteritis and was later hospitalised with a bout of sepsis. In a recent interview with the PA news agency, Leach confessed he feared for his life.
It is from this unfortunate event that Bess found himself on a plane to the southern hemisphere with another chance to prove himself.
"It's bittersweet because we're very close," Bess reflected. "But that's how it's always been with us. If he's going well it generally means I'm on the side or it's the other way round. It's a funny one. Our success is the other one's downfall. But away from that, we're always happy for each other when we succeed."
Both were expected to play prominent roles in Sri Lanka and over the English domestic season. With the addition of South Africa's Vernon Philander on a Kolpak contract, there was growing optimism that Somerset might finally lift the County Championship title for the first time, ending 128 years of hurt.
"We're confident," Bess said of the mood in south-west England. "[Philander] is a hell of a performer. Anyone with his stats instantly improves any team. The important thing is if he can contribute to our other bowlers and help drive our standards. If he can, hopefully we can run away with it. That is the standard we're setting ourselves. We don't want to be competitive, we want to run away with it if we can. It think it will be a fascinating year and hopefully, fingers crossed we can finally do it."
That was before the a virus sent a shockwave around the world and changed everything. The Rugby Football Union has already called a halt to all competitions this season and other sports remain in jeopardy as the economic and health cirrus unfolds. At this stage, no one can say for sure how much cricket we will see in the UK.
In this period of inaction, introspection is in order. As millions of people self-isolate, an opportunity has arisen to interrogate the structures around us and how we weave our way through them. Important questions proliferate about our interpersonal relationships, our impact on the environment and the ways in which we engage with an economic model dependent on consumption.
Introspection can be a daunting prospect for some, but not for young Bess. What he lacks in birthdays he makes up in confidence and a comfort with being vulnerable.
"I've struggled mentally and haven't always backed myself," he reflected. "I know there'll be plenty of bad days in the office. You don't know what's going to happen. I've worked so hard to be in this position. Now, I'm just going to enjoy it."
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