The truth, according to Janis Ian in her haunting hit At Seventeen, is that this is the age one realises that the world isn’t fair - that “love was meant for beauty queens,” as she sang in 1975. In the radically unlikely event that somebody wrote a similar song about off-spinners, they could adjust that mark to 23. It’s about then that the game can get tough for tweakers, especially those who have been given a look at the top level. Suddenly, they’re not so sexy.
Dom Bess turned 23 yesterday. It made the faith England’s selectors showed in him to continue as the Test team’s first choice twirler in the deciding Test this week all the more important. That he is the “spinner in possession” of the spot, in Chris Silverwood’s words after the second rubber, would have been comforting. Likewise, the coach’s belief that Somerset product “got better and better” before taking a vital wicket in the final flurry, bowling West Indies’ captain, Jason Holder, through the gate with a delivery that any spinner would dream of.
Even so, an offie he remains, one from central casting, picked on his dependability rather than the flare that would routinely be attached to him if he were ripping legbreaks instead. Add in the fact that the visitors can play a side made up entirely of right-handers with his offerings turning into them – by contrast to county teammate, the left-armer Jack Leach - and he could have been discarded. There’s always someone prettier than the offie.
It’s a story that Graeme Swann remembers well, having to wait until he was three months shy of his 30th birthday before getting the chance to play a Test, going on to become England’s most prolific exponent of the craft, claiming 255 wickets in 60 Tests. But he too did it tough as an early 20-something, experiencing seasons with a ‘4’ in front of his bowling average after first getting a taste of one-day international cricket as a 21-year-old.
Speaking with The Independent, Swann points to a conservatism in English cricket that has held it back when considering this subtle artform. “We view spin as a second-class citizen,” he explains, adding that this needs to be understood to interpret the version of Bess that we are currently seeing six Tests into his career. “He is consistent but not as aggressive as he could be because he is not used to it. He’s very effective holding and end and when he tries to really rip it with his back leg coming through he has the makings of a very good bowler.”
When Bess was given limited opportunities to bowl the West Indies out in Southampton, unable to contribute to the wicket-taking task, the spotlight was on him at Old Trafford with England chasing 19 wickets in two days. This was despite the fact that after being called into the squad from well back in the queue over the winter in South Africa, he did a fine job in Cape Town – going at under two an over across 60 of them in a tight win – then picking up a maiden five-wicket bag in Port Elizabeth to finish the trip. Unable to find a consistent length in the first innings, the noise was building. Was he too inexperienced for this gig?
This question and the others like it sounded a lot like those tossed around when Nathan Lyon jumped from curating pitches to the Australian Test team at age 23. His story was a fairytale but it wasn’t long before he was dropped and dropped again for two left-armers, Xavier Doherty then Ashton Agar. A third, Steve O’Keefe, was primed to take his spot down the line if not for injury. But he clung on then thrived either side of his 30th birthday in 2017, with 390 Test scalps now to his name. The fourth innings pressure Bess is now under mirrored Lyon’s experience, taking his wickets at 37 in the final stanza until 2014 and 26 thereafter.
“Over time they will come as long as he is working on getting more revs and bowling a more attacking line,” Swann says of Bess’ final-innings performances. “Also, from working on the relationship with his captain. Joe Root is not a natural captain to spin bowlers because he is a batsman who is quite aggressive against spinners and is very old-fashioned in the English way of thinking, so he will want to see someone hit over the top first before a man goes back – he won’t happily put deep midwicket back - things like that.”
As Bess battled last Sunday, Mike Atherton observed that he has bowled about a quarter of the deliveries of Derek Underwood (and half of that of Swann) in First Class cricket by age 23. His point: cut the young man some slack if you want a bowler to make the most on this investment into the future. But from his own experience, Swann is more bullish about the ability to become the completed product earlier, believing that it is down to mindset.
“I see no reason why you couldn’t challenge the established way of thinking,” he responds when asked about the orthodoxy of finger spinners peaking later. “They give off a presence which means that the batsmen – and this is cricket on a subconscious level – doesn’t feel the need to attack and dominate as much. So, if he can stand there and get absolute faith in his own bowling and really get into the fight, just find an air of confidence, then everything will happen quicker for him. The captain will have more faith in him, the fans will fall in love with him more, he’ll take more wickets, batsmen will be more reticent to attack him. The hard thing is actually convincing yourself. That’s what off-spinners have to deal with.”
That is, until they don’t. Until they are Swann or Lyon, ramping up the pressure. That’s the role that England are asking Bess to do before his time and will again when if they tour India over the winter as planned. The lesson from the end of Janis Ian’s song is defiant – the “ugly duckling” teens she identifies with realise that substance matters most. The truth for any off-spinner is there’s always be someone prettier. The challenge is realising that it doesn’t matter.