Dom Bess poised for recall in 'fearless' England team

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Nick Hoult
·5 min read
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Dom Bess - BCCI
Dom Bess - BCCI

Joe Root calls it being “fearless” but what he really wants from his England team is to approach the final Test against India on Thursday with the same conviction and purpose they had at the start of the series before confidence was spun out of them.

Where the positive message can become a little cloudy is when it comes to the team’s approach to batting after five scores in a row under 200, crumbling to Axar Patel and Ravichandran Ashwin.

Root explained on Tuesday that when he told his players to be “fearless” before the second innings of the day-nighter it was not freedom to attack but it did produce a jumpy performance and 81 all out.

Reading about it in Jofra Archer’s newspaper column brought back memories of Trevor Bayliss and his “be positive” approach that England players could never really marry to the reality of Test match batting. Clarity has been one of the strengths of the Chris Silverwood-Root partnership, instructing the team to be patient and build an innings.

Conditions have made that harder but Root explained that being fearless is about committing to a method, whether in attack or defence. He has to hope it has translated through to his players.

“Everyone’s idea of what fearless is is slightly different. Being fearless is not having that tentative mentality of being trapped on the crease or being caught in two minds,” said Root. “It’s having that confidence to play the ball in front of you, not having the baggage from the previous delivery, not overthinking the pitch, trying to see things for what they are.

“And if you get an opportunity to score, you absolutely have to commit to it. That kind of mentality and attitude is really important on surfaces that are extreme and are spinning quite heavily. You need to be able to put pressure back on the bowlers, try and make it hard for them to bowl six balls in the same spot, six balls at the same batter. To try and get off strike.

“It’s a fine line in batting especially when it’s as extreme as it has been - of being confident and proactive and not reckless. That’s what we have to get on the right side of.”

One way to set the tone would be to tinker with the team and take the positive, and exciting move, of promoting Ollie Pope to three, giving a fine young player his wings and showing him some backing at a difficult time, and possibly the chance to bat before the spinners settle into long spells.

It would relegate Jonny Bairstow to six where he can be more effective against the older ball. The third selection change should see Dom Bess recalled, giving him a chance to bowl on a turning pitch and some faith shown in a young spinner.

BoB: Bess to be recalled for fourth Test
BoB: Bess to be recalled for fourth Test

The No 3 question has dogged England for years, Zak Crawley’s 267 the only century in the position in two-and-a-half years. Pope is a player solely focussed on Test cricket. Bairstow has other priorities now and keeping his place in the one-day side, along with his IPL deal, is probably more important given he is no longer a contracted Test player.

He showed dedication to England by pulling out of his Big Bash deal to go to Sri Lanka but he is in his 30s and in demand in the shorter form of the game. Balancing both negatively affected his technique in Test cricket against pace, something not really tested this winter.

Bairstow was not temperamentally suited to being a Test No 3 when he was given the job in 2018 and made no secret of wanting the gloves back. He has become even more focussed on white-ball cricket since then and like most all-rounders, struggles to succeed when picked as a specialist in one skill.

At No 3 Bairstow averages 33.81, lower than his career overall of 34.5 although there is not much in it. Where there is a much wider gap is between his record as a keeper and a specialist batsman. In 48 Tests as a keeper Bairstow averages 37.85, playing as a batsman it drops to 27.82.

England may well go back to three openers at home but this Test is a chance to look at Pope, see if he has what it takes. Dan Lawrence was batted out of position at three and struggled but Pope has played more Test cricket, possesses a better technique, and has that look of a high quality player in the making which is why he has been likened to a young Root.

At six, an aggressive Bairstow can give Ben Foakes a foil one place above him in the order, allowing him to play his defensive game, one of the few England successes in recent weeks. Foakes’ Test hundred on debut at No 7 was made with Jos Buttler batting at six, his menace with the bat allowing Foakes to settle into his method.

The pitch will turn but this Test should produce more runs without the pink ball that was hard to pick up and skidded on last week, a difficult combination when paired with spin off the surface. There is a bare patch around three feet outside off stump perfect for Ashwin but that is home advantage and Root has told his players to put thoughts of a stitch-up out of their minds.

India are likely to replace Washington Sundar, picked last week for his extra batting, with Kuldeep Yadav, a sign they expect the pitch to be better for batting, with Umesh Yadav coming in for Jasprit Burmah who has left for personal reasons.