Match Analysis

Dom Bess' struggles are symptomatic of England's sickly spin system

Offspinner's 15 wicketless overs undid seamers' hard graft on second afternoon

George Dobell
George Dobell
Just for a moment, it seemed England might get away with it.
Just for a moment, after they had claimed a sixth Indian wicket with the hosts still 59 runs adrift, it seemed England may get away with their inadequate first-innings total, their ill-balanced team selection and a domestic system which has left them with an unprecedented weakness when it comes to both bowling and playing spin.
But this can be a brutal game. And, in the evening session, as England were forced to endure the slow agony of seeing the hard-won gains of their day's work slip away from them, it became apparent that each of these chickens was coming home to roost. You can't waste first use of a surface like this. You can't make do with a spinner learning his trade in India. And you can't ask a sick man - even a sick superman - to plug the gaps by bowling for so much of the day in this heat.
England did a huge amount right on the second day of this match. They knew they had squandered the chance to set a match-defining total on the first day, but they showed admirable resilience in clawing their way back into match with an outstanding performance in the first two sessions on the second.
At the heart of that performance were England's two seamers. At one stage Ben Stokes bowled 10 overs in a single spell broken only by a change of ends, while James Anderson provided a masterclass in skill and frugality and was into his 14th over before he conceded a boundary. Given steady support from Jack Leach, who continued his remarkable domination over Cheteshwar Pujara, they probably had their noses in front at one stage. With batting likely to become more difficult, the possibility of a series-levelling victory was very much alive.
But there was a problem. Having gone into the game with only four main bowlers - plus the part-time spin of captain Joe Root - they needed each of them to contribute.
Try as he might, Root was struggling to introduce Dom Bess into the attack. Having given him one over at the end of the first day - a decent chance to settle, you would think, with India playing for stumps - he waited until minutes before the lunch break on day two before asking him for another bowl. Again, while the plan might have been to allow him to settle with the batsmen playing for a break, those two overs conceded two boundaries - one from a long full toss - and can have done little to boost Root's confidence in his young bowler.
Still, Root retained patience with him after the break. Resisting the temptation to bowl himself, he perhaps reasoned that Bess required a show of faith if he was to play the required role in the fourth innings of the game. So, Root gave him another five overs after the break. And while the total of 26 runs conceded from those five overs (containing two boundaries off the bat from over-pitched balls plus four byes when he fired a long-hop down the leg side) might not seem dramatic, in the context of a low-scoring match, each of them was a body blow to England's hopes.
Root tried him again just before tea. While the two overs before the break were largely uneventful - and he was unfortunate not to win a leg-before decision against Rishabh Pant, with the on-field 'not out' call upheld by a fine margin - the overs afterwards were not pretty. With the pitch offering assistance and two left-handers at the crease, it was not only an opportunity for him to settle into the game but a moment when England needed him to contribute.
But his first over after the break, containing a full toss and two long-hops, was taken for 10. And if that doesn't sound so bad, it should be remembered that, after 15 overs, Anderson had conceded just 11 runs and, after 11 overs, Stokes had conceded 13. After one more over - which contained two more low full tosses - Root had little choice but to withdraw him once more. With the match on a knife edge, bowling him felt like a liability.
In a four-man attack, though, there are knock-on effects to such decisions. Although Leach bowled nicely enough, he is less effective against left-handers and was carted for a boundary that suggested Pant might launch the sort of assault we saw in Chennai.
So Root was persuaded, once more, to turn to Stokes. But by bringing him into the attack for the 76th over, right before the second new ball was available, England were eating their sandwiches on the way to the picnic. Stokes had, by then, bowled 15 overs in the day - a day in which temperatures rose above 40 degrees - having suffered an upset stomach two nights before. Stokes has showcased his immense stamina in the recent past, but there are limits to what can be expected.
Here, eventually, Stokes hit the wall. His 19th over, containing a head-high full toss and two boundaries, cost 12 runs and saw India creep into the lead. But even then, with his team requiring more, he bowled on until, across his 20th, 21st and 22nd overs, he conceded five boundaries in eight deliveries. All that work, all that progress had been undone. India's first-innings lead is already threatening to stretch beyond the horizon.
The simplistic reaction would be to blame Bess for all this. And it's true, he proved unable to fulfil the role England had for him. While he is certainly young enough to come again, there should be no pretence that things "just didn't work out for him today" as Jeetan Patel, England's spin-bowling coach, loyally described it later.
Bess has struggled with length across most of this tour. He was flattered by his five-wicket haul against Sri Lanka and he bowled more than 20 full tosses during the first Test in Chennai. It really does look as if he requires an extended spell back at county level to master his trade. Andrew Strauss, working as a pundit for Channel 4, described it as "painful to watch" and that seems about right. Bess is a talented young man. But he's been picked too early and, on this tour, it has showed.
Wait there, you may be saying: he conceded 3.73 runs per over. That isn't so bad, is it?
But that's because, for large stages of the innings, his captain didn't trust him enough to throw him the ball. And while Patel was no doubt right to praise the manner in which Pant, in particular, played him, the truth is most Test batsmen play the full toss well. Bess has delivered 10 of them so far. Consider the 11 short balls he has delivered and the three boundaries he conceded from other over-pitched balls that did at least pitch and you'll begin to understand how tough life was for Root. Really, this was a performance to compare with Simon Kerrigan at The Oval in 2013 or Ian Salisbury in Pakistan in 2000.
But you have to remember why Bess was in this position. You have to remember that he has never been the first-choice spinner for his county side. You have to remember that he is 23 and has been asked to learn on the job in a huge series against the strongest of oppositions. That he was dropped, just a couple of games ago, and such was the lack of confidence in him, England asked another player to change his plans at the last minute and stay on the tour.
And, when Moeen Ali declined, England demonstrated their continuing lack of confidence in Bess by declining to pick him for the third Test on a track as ideally suited for spin as you will ever see. None of that can have been especially helpful for his confidence.
But the seeds of this problem were sown much longer ago. They were sown when the ECB squeezed a generation of experienced spinners out of their game with their incentives for playing young players. They were sown when the County Championship programme was pushed into the margins of the season, reducing opportunities for first-class spinners to learn their craft. They were sown when Bess was picked for England on the back of impressing as much with his fielding and batting as his bowling and despite the fact that he averages 47.66 in the Second XI Championship. His selection was always a hunch. And while there have been moments - notably in South Africa in January 2020 - when it has looked as if it could work, ultimately the increased exposure has done him few favours.
More than that, this is a problem sown by the poor management of Moeen which saw him dropped and lose his red-ball central contract while the top wicket-taker in the world over the previous 12 months. Those 56 wickets in his last 11 Tests at a cost of 25.69 don't look so bad now, do they?
With all that in mind, it is increasingly hard to escape the conclusion that Bess - with his positive demeanour and willingness to embrace the challenge - has been asked the perform the impossible task of filling the void at the heart of the English game where spinners should be. It's not Bess at fault; it's a system. And that is what came back to bite England on the second afternoon of this match.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo