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Made in Somerset: pride as Dom Bess, Jack Leach share 14 wickets in Galle win

Club see spinners' success in Sri Lanka as vindication of decision to prepare helpful home pitches

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
It would be unwise to get too carried away about Dom Bess and Jack Leach's combined match haul of 14 for 307 in Galle. Tougher challenges lie ahead for them this winter - it seems unlikely that India's batsmen will be quite as generous with their wickets as Sri Lanka's were on the first day - and, by their own admission, neither bowler was at his best after a short preparation period following months without competitive cricket.
But it is a rare thing for two England spinners to take a five-wicket haul in the same Test match. Before Bess and Leach's efforts this week, the most recent occasion was 1982, when John Emburey and Derek Underwood managed it - coincidentally, also in Sri Lanka. For this most-recent success to have helped seal a fourth consecutive England Test win away from home made it better still.
As a result, there is sense of excitement and pride in the southwest this week. After 21 appearances together in first-class cricket - 19 of them for Somerset, two for the England Lions - Bess and Leach lined up in the same England team for the first time in Galle, with a third local in Jos Buttler behind the stumps.
"I think everyone associated with the club feels a huge amount of pride when those two spinners are representing England," Tom Abell, Somerset's captain, said. "It's been a hell of a journey for both of them, for various different reasons, so to see them working in tandem playing Test cricket is amazing for everyone to see."
For Leach in particular, it has been a heartening return to the England side. His struggles with illness last winter and his frustrating time in the bubble during the home summer are now well-documented, but it is worth dwelling on his bowling stats across his Test career to date: 40 wickets at 29.10 in 11 appearances.
"Nobody knows the amount of work that he's had to put in behind the scenes to get back to where he is," Jason Kerr, Somerset's head coach who spent many hours in Taunton's indoor school with Leach before he left for Sri Lanka, said. "I've got no doubts that going into the Test, there would have been a little bit of anxiety and a few nerves with so many weeks and months out of the game, but he got better and better the more he bowled."
Abell added: "They're both quality performers, and it's always nice as captain to have the option to spin the ball away from either the right- or left-handers at any point in time. But of course, there have been some pretty tough decisions: there have been times when we've not been able to play them both, and that's never been easy."
Somerset have always preferred Leach to Bess when picking a single spinner, prioritising his control and experience over Bess' abilities with the bat and in the field. With Bess reasoning that he had to be his county's first-choice red-ball spinner when returning from international duties - and with Roelof van der Merwe and Max Waller ahead of him in the white-ball pecking order - he signed a four-year deal with Yorkshire in September, despite Somerset's attempts to keep him. The situation evoked Buttler's departure in 2013, when he had been the club's second-choice wicketkeeper behind Craig Kieswetter.
"Ideally you'd want to keep him and try to make things work for the betterment of the club, but for him as an aspirational individual, it was the right decision to get that competitive cricket across all formats," Kerr said. "You want tough decisions as coach, and it's important that I make those decisions with the team's best interests at heart. I love Bessy to bits and understood his desire to play, but I've got no regrets in how we've managed the situation."
Abell described Bess as "a huge figure at the club" but said it was difficult not always being able to accommodate both. "I think it was the best move for him, being honest. As much as I'd love to have him at Somerset - he's one of my best friends and has been a huge part of our success - but equally, I want to see him playing for England in all formats."
Bess and Leach's success in county cricket has not come without controversy. Since 2016, 400 wickets have fallen to spin at Taunton across four County Championship seasons and last year's Covid-enforced spin-off, the Bob Willis Trophy; no other ground has seen even 250. While the quality of Somerset's spinners must be considered, Taunton's "Ciderabad" moniker was not earned without reason.
Somerset will start next season with a points deduction after preparing a pitch rated as "poor" for the 2019 title decider against Essex, and had previously been accused of "treading a very fine line" when escaping punishment for their spin-friendly pitches. But while other counties have been vocal in their criticisms, Kerr and Abell are quick to defend the ploy.
"As a philosophy, we want to produce surfaces that allow for really good cricket, and help to develop international cricketers," Kerr said. "Some of the surfaces that we've played on have certainly been talked about unfairly, but then there's no doubt that some have spun significantly. When Bessy first came into the team, the surfaces were conducive to helping a young spinners, and the confidence that gave him has doubtless helped him on his journey.
"Some of the best spells I've seen from both of them, but particularly from Leachy, have been away from Taunton - I can think of spells at Headingley and Trent Bridge early in the season, and I think it's important that we recognise their development as cricketers and the skills they've developed.
"Surfaces need to be good enough for four-day cricket, definitely, but ultimately you want to encourage skill development and make sure that batters are prepared to go to somewhere like Sri Lanka, and perform as well as they do in Australia or anywhere else in the world. Yes, we want to win competitions, but to me, domestic cricket is there to help make the England team as strong as possible."
Abell said: "Everyone is going to have an opinion on it and I certainly have my own. At home, you want to play a brand of cricket that suits your team. Having two world-class spinners, it would be silly not to take that into account. A lot gets made of the wickets, but I think more should be made of their abilities and their qualities as cricketers.
"As a Somerset side, we want to be winning games, and I don't think it should be frowned upon to play in seaming conditions, spinning conditions, or whatever suits a team. And these guys play on wickets that don't assist them as much and still perform. There also becomes a pressure and an expectation to take wickets, and they've had to learn to deal with that as well."
Regardless, the upshot is that Bess and Leach will be key to England's success this winter, with one of them likely to come out of it as the side's No. 1 spinner. Much as they have both improved under the tutelage of Richard Dawson and Jeetan Patel within the England set-up, among others, it would be churlish to ignore Somerset's role in their development.
"They worked really well together at Somerset, and there's no doubt that there has been competition for that spot in the England team," Kerr said. "They've got a really good friendship and working relationship, where they definitely help and push each other in practice but have the ability to be friends and support each other away from the ground as well."
Abell also suggested their relationship from developing at the same club would only be beneficial for England. "I'm very close with both of them, and I want to see both of them succeed," he said. "I think everyone at the club does. Of course, the last few years have come with their challenges, but ultimately the two of them push and drive each other on to be better, which is a great thing as well. It's brilliant to witness them doing so well."

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