England turn to spinner No12 in long search to replace Graeme Swann

Will Macpherson
Debutant: Dom Bess will make his international bow at Lord's on Thursday: Getty Images

Dom Bess is due to become the youngest finger spinner to play for England, and the youngest spinner of any sort since 1931. Like Mason Crane, he is set to debut aged 20 and is young enough to consider Graeme Swann, who was still in his pomp just five years ago, a childhood hero. Feel old yet?

But Bess also joins a rather long list. The First Test against Pakistan is the 55th since Swann retired and Bess is the 12th player picked to bowl spin for England in that time. Seven of them have played their first Test since Swann quit.

Given Moeen Ali has played 50 of those Tests, 12 is quite a figure, and naming all of them is not simple, especially as Scott Borthwick is a batsman, Zafar Ansari was this month doing law exams, James Tredwell is as interested in making jam as bowling jaffas and Monty Panesar is on the celebrity TV circuit.

Simon Kerrigan, once the great white hope, is not even one of the 12 — his sole Test came alongside Swann — and now, aged 29, is more coach than cricketer.

With Bess’s arrival, the list to replace Swann has become as long as those to have bid to replace Andrew Strauss at the top of the order. Twelve openers have started a match alongside Alastair Cook since Strauss retired in 2012, although Jos Buttler had a go in a second-innings chase in Abu Dhabi in 2015.

Australia have cycled through 12 spinners since Shane Warne retired in 2007 but the ninth of those, Nathan Lyon, has proved a revelation and now has 306 wickets across 78 Tests.

This seems another reason to be dispirited about the state of English spin. Opportunities are limited by the shape of the season, with so little cricket played on spinning wickets in high summer. Crane, infamously, was left out by Hampshire early last season, and only one of Bess and Jack Leach usually plays for Somerset in April, when plenty of the season is played.

Spinners — and Bess is an example of this, as seen by his recent century for MCC — have resorted to resourcefulness, improving their batting and fielding to force their way into teams at No8. The Middlesex and England Lions spinner Ollie Rayner was once asked by a kid for his advice on being a spinner. “Learn to bat,” came the dry response.

Listening to Strauss talk about England’s overseas issues earlier this week was a reminder of all that Swann brought as a spinner who could flit between attack and defence in the space of an over, and bat and field second slip to boot. Bess’s selection over Moeen for the Test due to start today is in part a recognition that England must at least try something different if their fortunes are to improve overseas. Trips to Sri Lanka and West Indies, which is increasingly subcontinental in style, loom large this winter. And yet it is not all doom and gloom. Bess is the third spinner to play this year, which sounds ugly. But Crane and Jack Leach, Bess’s senior Somerset colleague (he is 26), picked up injuries before they could play a second.

Lucky No12? Dom Bess considers Graeme Swann a childhood hero (Getty Images for ECB)

These three are not alone in offering hope: 19-year-old off-spinner Amar Virdi, of Surrey, has 17 wickets in four games at 19 this season, while Matt Parkinson, the 21-year-old Lancashire leggie, is already accomplished in white-ball cricket and is a coming force in the Championship, when chances permit. His twin brother, Callum, is a handy left-arm orthodox at Leicestershire.

Perhaps the future is brighter than you might first think. The beauty of this crop is the variety among them. Crane is rated as much for his temperament as his technique — he is quick to forget bad days and does not care about conceding runs as long as he is taking wickets.

Leach is far further down the line than his rivals and is consistent, accurate and subtle. Like Bess, he has benefited from turning pitches at Taunton — or Ciderabad as it became known — that should be celebrated not shouted down.

Matt Parkinson followed Crane in working with Stuart MacGill in Sydney over the winter and is diminutive, highly competitive and skilful. Virdi has a high ceiling and beautiful natural shape but is too raw for England, most of all in the batting, fielding and fitness departments.

Which brings us to Bess. He is unlikely to have a big bearing on this match but will be better for it. He has impressed all he has met this week, from his press conference request for Ikea sponsorship (he took Ed Smith’s selection call while sofa shopping and has since been dubbed the Flatpack Bully), to his work in training. He is unafraid to attack, and reads the game well.

“He is really clear about how he wants to play this week and full of energy,” said Joe Root yesterday. None of this group is nearly the finished article, although Leach is closest. They show, though, that we needn’t sound the death knell for English spin just yet.