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Dom Bess' fate sealed by inconsistency and fatigue as England pick Moeen Ali for second Test

Bess has taken 17 wickets at 22.41 in 2021 but underlying data highlights lack of control

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Dom Bess pitched the ball on a good length outside off stump, finding sharp turn and bounce to draw an inside edge as Virat Kohli shaped to press towards cover-point. The ball looped up into the hands of Ollie Pope at short leg, and Bess had removed India's captain with a perfect offspinner's dismissal.
But six days later, Bess will be carrying the drinks, paying the price for his lack of consistency. England have confirmed that Moeen Ali will replace him in the side for the second Test in Chennai in a two-man spin attack alongside Jack Leach, leaving Bess to reflect on his omission in a fluorescent bib.
Bess has taken 17 wickets at 22.41 across England's tours of Sri Lanka and India, but has struggled to land the ball reliably, and bowled poorly in the fourth innings of the first Test in Chennai. He had started the match well, with a tidy spell on the third afternoon in which he claimed the wickets of Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, but was thrown off his length when Cheteshwar Pujara and Rishabh Pant used their feet against him.
He did go on to dismiss both Pujara and Pant - caught freakishly at midwicket after a deflection via short leg and holing out to deep cover respectively - but was hit out of the attack by R Ashwin and Washington Sundar on the fourth morning, and looked particularly out of sorts on the fifth day, when his six overs cost 47 runs.
"It wasn't an easy decision," Root said after revealing Bess had been dropped. "Dom has contributed fantastically well in these three games and has a made a real impact. With him missing out, the messaging for him is to keep working at that consistency of his game, delivering that skill time and time again. We talk about building pressure over long periods of time and, as well as he has done and the contributions he has made, that is one area he can improve on.
"He is very young. He is much at the start of things and this doesn't mean he is going to be pushed back down the pecking order. It gives him an opportunity to step out of Test cricket - the harshest environment, especially in these conditions, especially against a team that plays spin so well - to take stock and work at his game."
Despite his impressive headline figures over the past four weeks, ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data helps to illustrate Bess' inconsistency. He has bowled 33 full tosses in 119.1 overs (4.6% of his total deliveries) across the three Tests in Sri Lanka and India, and 67 balls that have pitched short of a length (9.4%). His full tosses have been particularly frustrating for England, costing them 56 runs including 10 fours, contributing to an overall economy rate of 3.19.
Furthermore, CricViz's expected wickets (xW) model - cricket's equivalent of the expected goals (xG) metric in football - suggests that, in Sri Lanka, the balls Bess bowled were expected to give him a series return of seven wickets at 35.9. In fact, he took 12 at 21.25, indicating that Sri Lanka's batsmen played him poorly and that he enjoyed more than a small slice of luck.
Jeetan Patel, England's consultant spin-bowling coach, said on Friday that he had emphasised the important of sticking to plans with consistent lines and lengths. He held up the example of Leach's spell to Pant on the third day in which he stuck to his guns, tossing the ball up towards the footmarks despite being attacked, and suggested that Bess' final-day struggles may have been the result of fatigue.
"[We're looking at] pitchmap and pace data - all those things that you can see on Hawk-Eye and that TV does a great job of broadcasting," Patel said. "It's those little things that mean a lot. That's the one message that we've been trying to get across from our side as a coaching staff, especially to the spin unit: taking care of the small things - the lines and the lengths, and how often we can do it - to effect games.
"[For Leach] it was more about the lengths and lines we asked him to bowl [than his figures]. It was about the areas he bowled. If you look at where he was in the second innings, he raised that bar again, and hit those areas better and better and better.
"I think Dom just needs a bit of a rest, to be honest with you. He's been in the bubbles a long time now, and just as we try to rest and rotate the seamers, it's started to become evident, especially to me, that maybe Bessy was becoming a bit tired and it might be taking a toll on his outcomes in terms of where he was bowling the ball.
"He's bowled a lot of overs and put a lot of pressure on himself to make sure that he does a great job and he's done it very, very well. There were certainly signs, I believe, that maybe a bit of tiredness was coming in."
"It was a very difficult conversation," Root said. "It always is when you leave a player out, but especially when it's someone like Dom who has contributed well and gives absolutely everything every time he pulls an England shirt on.
"It's been made very clear what he needs to go away and work on and he's taken that on board. I'm sure he'll come back with questions and I'm sure he will be disappointed, but that's what you expect from guys that really care and want to be out there all the time, performing for their country."
Bess' omission has paved the way for Moeen to return, ending his 18-month absence from the Test side. Moeen had been the world's leading wicket-taker in the year leading up to the 2019 Ashes, but he returned match figures of 3 for 172 in 42 overs in the first Test of that series, and was dropped for Leach immediately after.
His red-ball central contract was not renewed after that series, and he made himself unavailable for selection for the 2019-20 winter, but has since restated his ambitions to play Test cricket. Moeen has not played a first-class game since September 2019, and has not made a competitive appearance in any format since last year's IPL, but Root insisted that his performances in training merited selection.
"I'm very confident he's in a good place," Root said. "He's bowling very nicely and he's got huge amounts of experience in Tests and he's played in these conditions before. That will hold him in good stead going in to the game. He's a fine competitor and he'll get himself into the heat of the battle. We know he can produce special things in an England shirt [and] in a Test shirt.
"[We're] very excited for him to get this opportunity. He's worked really hard and obviously had a rough tour having to deal with Covid and quarantine. Since then he's applied himself really well, worked very well with the other spinners and been a very good senior pro in that respect."
Moeen's batting may also have been seen as a positive: on a pitch that is expected to turn from the first session and with the loss of Jos Buttler weakening England's lower-middle order, the inclusion of a man with two Test hundreds in India adds up. Bess is a popular figure within the England camp and Root and Patel were keen to stress that he remains in their plans, but if Moeen performs well then forcing his way back in could be a daunting prospect.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98