By Ned Vessey
In my preview article for the Sri Lanka tour, I wrote that England was going to face a challenge. As the hosts capitulated to 135 all out on the first day of the first Test – an innings symbolic of the start to 2021 if ever there was one – I was beginning to regret my words. Thankfully for me, Sri Lanka, and Test cricket in general, they went along rather better in their second innings: and now England has won the series convincingly, Bess and Leach shining with four wickets each.
Despite England gaining a substantial lead in the first Test, thanks to a welcome 228 from Joe Root, the Sri Lankans fought back in their second innings. Spirited knocks from Dilruwan Perera, Angelo Mathews and a hundred from Lahiru Thirimanne – his first since 2013 – meant England had to bat again. Noticeably, Jack Leach and Dom Bess toiled for much of Sri Lanka’s 359, and the whole match raised a number of intriguing questions about England’s spin attack.
The biggest question marks are over how Dom Bess will fare against India’s batting line-up, which is substantially more experienced and ruthless than the Sri Lankan one. Bess picked up five wickets in the first innings, but he was the first to admit he was extremely fortunate to do so. He looked somewhat better in the second innings, and picked up a further three wickets, though he struggled to control his length and often dropped too short. He was able to get away with it against the Sri Lankans, but will need to improve by the time the Indian series begins.
These are very short-term concerns, however, and Bess is still early into his Test (12 matches) and first-class (49 matches) career. Whether he is successful in the upcoming Test matches or not, they will provide an enormous learning opportunity for him.
That Bess has already made a number of appearances for England speaks volumes about the dearth of spin options in county cricket. The days when spinners could hone their craft in the way that Graeme Swann did (he was nearly 30 when he made his Test debut) are pretty much gone. Less first-class cricket and more limited overs games, as well as the County Championship being elbowed into the margins of the season, have ensured that. It seems that English Test spinners have to learn on the job.
Jack Leach, who despite being nearly 30 has played a relatively small number of first-class games, seems to be doing just that. Like Bess, he was noticeably rusty in this Test. Unlike Bess, he showed signs of increased rhythm and control, and his five-fer in the Sri Lankan second innings was thoroughly deserved. He genuinely bowled the Sri Lankan batsmen out, and looks the pick of the English spinners going forwards. After a difficult year and a half off the field for the Somerset man, it was heartening to see him experiencing success again.
Released from quarantine and watching on from the boundary was Moeen Ali, still the best spin option that England have. It is highly unlikely that he will play in the second Sri Lanka game, but he can be expected to play when England take on India next month. It will be fascinating to see how he goes after eighteen months out of Test cricket, but England will need him to be at his best if they are to have any chance of beating India.
There is certainly plenty of potential the English spin attack, notably in the form of Leach and Ali, but there is just as much uncertainty too. While there are options besides that duo and Bess, they are rather slim pickings. Matt Parkinson and Amar Virdi have played only 20 and 28 first class games respectively, while Mason Crane averages 193 with the ball from his only Test.
Can Moeen make an immediate impact on his return to Test cricket? Can Leach continue the promising signs he showed in the last Test? Can Bess exert more control? We will soon know, and the answers to these questions may well tell us a great deal about the future of English Test match spin bowling.
Image: Amal316 via Creative Commons