England’s Dom Bess ready to realise dream with spin twin Jack Leach

Dom Bess is relishing the prospect of playing Test cricket alongside good mate Jack Leach next week, realising a dream they idly spoke of some four years ago.

It was while rooming together in 2016 on 2nd XI duty for Somerset at Kent that the pair wondered of a future where they might bowl in tandem for England. That should become a reality in the first Test against Sri Lanka on 14 January, on a Galle pitch expected to take turn.

The only obstacles at present are around health, not just possible injury between now and Thursday, but Covid-19. A boost on Friday came when the squad returned a clean bill of negative results. The next round of testing will be on the 12th. For all the rigid adherence to protocols, the wait for the all-clear is continually fraught with nerves.

Moeen Ali, who tested positive on arrival into Sri Lanka last Sunday, remains in isolation. He will travel separately as the squad move to Galle on Saturday evening and will continue his isolation in a different hotel. Chris Woakes, a close contact, is due to be released on Saturday to work in a net on his own and will rejoin the main training group on Monday.  

Moeen’s absence until the day before the first Test provides a clearer path for Bess to join Leach in the XI, whose left-arm spin took 18 wickets at an average of 21.38 in these conditions. It represents a more straightforward moment for the pair, whose bond forged from years together at Taunton has been a constant amid the fluctuations of form and circumstance.

For county and country, Bess’s opportunities have come as a by-product of Leach’s availability. Of 26 first-class appearances for Bess at Somerset, only seven have been without Leach. The first of his 10 caps, against Pakistan at the start of the 2018 summer, came via a broken hand sustained by Leach. The offie’s eight wickets during the 2019/20 South Africa tour, including a maiden five-wicket haul, came while Leach lay in his sickbed. He then jumped ahead of Leach as the primary spin option during the behind-closed-doors summer, albeit through his superior ability with the bat and in the field.

Domestically, where their professional relationship was going to feel the most strain, Leach has always been Somerset’s number one. Thus, last year, Bess took the decision to move to Yorkshire on a four-year deal after a loan spell at the club in 2019. 

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“Myself and Leachy has been a really interesting one,” reflected Bess. “It’s 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 had its tolls before in terms of 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, so 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 will really suit us. Taking away being individual or wanting to be number one because its’s all about the team first.

“Genuinely, I can’t wait [to bowl with Leach]. It has been a while. There’s been a lot of chat from outside in terms of me looking to leave Somerset – and I have obviously now moved to Yorkshire – and 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. It’s going to be our first time for England.

“I remember rooming together in the second team, it must have been in 2016 and we were playing down at Kent, and we were chatting for ages, joking about one day playing for England. Hopefully that could be next week if everything goes to plan.”

Much like Moeen and Adil Rashid, having two spinners who are friends should be of immense benefit to England. And the numbers bear that out for this duo. 

Of the 19 matches together for Somerset, the pair took 163 wickets between them: Bess with 66 (at 23.73) and Leach with 97 (18.26), as per CricViz data. In a series where surfaces are suited to finger spinners, having two of their quality who turn the ball in different directions – along with Bess’s use of over-spin to compliment Leach’s side-spin – is vital.

Just as useful is the wisdom of legendary Sri Lankan twirler Rangana Herath bestowed onto Bess during a 2019 spin camp out in Mumbai. There aren’t many better brains to pick for the situation, what with 269 of 433 career dismissals at home, and 102 at Galle, the venue for both Tests.

Beyond the art of finger spin, Bess has credited Herath with broadening his tactical range. Some of the lessons given are still available to him in their raw form.

“We spoke a lot about bowling in sub-continent conditions. Funnily enough I’ve still got the voice notes on my phone and I read through my notes the other day about it and there were a lot of things that came back up that showed obviously he was a genius but how simple he kept it. That was something that keeps getting reinforced.”

“With Herath, it was actually again how consistent you can be in an area – and it always comes back to that – bowling your best ball. And then once you’ve got the confidence, actually changing it subtly. Also playing with your fields. The Sri Lankans are going to back themselves against our spinners and that’s going to play into our hands. There’s going to be a couple of egos floating around I hope because you can get stuck into that – which I quite enjoy.”

Friday also saw England take part in their first warm-up match in 2021 as a Joe Root XI scored 184 for two in 50 overs, thanks to 74 from Root and cameos from Zak Crawley (46) and Dan Lawrence (46 not out). In reply, the Jos Buttler XI posted 120 for six from their 38, featuring an unbeaten 58 from Ollie Pope who is not technically part of the squad but is out in Sri Lanka to continue his recovery after dislocating his shoulder left last August. On a quick, grassy pitch, a rarity for a touring England side in these parts, Sussex right-arm seamer Ollie Robinson stood out with two for 15 in an outing primarily to blow out the cobwebs of isolation. Bess took one for 59 from his 16 overs, while Leach returned two for 27 from his eight. 

There will be one final group middle session in Hambantota on Saturday in which only the spinners will bowl to the batters. The quicks, who did the lion’s share of the work on Friday, will be on hand as fielders. 

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