Dom Bess collapsed walking towards the team bus at Trent Bridge cricket ground at Somerset. It was the last game of the 2018 season but he wasn’t in the team. It had been a summer where he was in and out, losing out the spin spot to his county-mate Jack Leach. Sitting in the bus was Marcus Trescothick, a veteran batsman playing his penultimate season of county cricket and someone intimate with depression. He sensed something was wrong with young Bess and rushed.
“You dragged me to the side, and I was crying and hugged you. That was powerful. I was absolutely in bits. That was a big step in my battle (with mental health). I could chat with you, offload. To know that I wasn’t alone,” Bess says in a chat with Trescothick last May during the mental health week by Professional Cricket Association.
Bess, who starred with a dramatic four-wicket haul that included the wickets of Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane in Chennai, had been waging an inner battle with depression until that day when it tumbled out in the company of an empathetic Trescothick. The comforting hug and the chat behind the stadium was a powerful moment but the stress didn’t end. His battle was still largely private until September 2019 when Somerset was playing a game against Yorkshire.
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“I was lost. I just wanted to be home. I didn’t want to play cricket,” Bess tells Trescothick. Even as the match was going on, he was baring his soul at an office behind the change-room to Chris Bodman, Somerset’s performance psychologist. It went on for 45 minutes. “I didn’t know what the score was. All I knew was that the openers were out there. I was in tears, and broke down.”
And then Bess’s face lights up with a lovely cheeky smile. “The office must have been in an absolute flood. The carpet must be coming up!” He even composed himself, padded up, went to bat, before the lights went out again after he was dismissed. The battle with the Black Dog, as depression is termed can be like that, we know with the likes of Trescothick or closer home with Praveen Kumar who was perceived as ‘mast maula’ (free-spirit) but was pushed to get out of the home with a gun in hand, thinking about ending his own life.
“Little triggers,” Bess says. “It could be a dark room, bad weather and I can struggle to get out of my bed. Luckily my girlfriend and housemate make sure I am okay.” To know that “it’s okay not to be okay” was the first step of acceptance of the situation, Bess says, that put him on the right path to share his struggles and find a way out. The PCA got into the act, provided him with a psychologist out of the team, who lives half an hour away from his home. “She has been a great help. That September I remember (after the Yorkshire game) I had lots of sessions with her.”
The trouble had started at his school when he was a kid. It was a reading class when he suddenly froze. “I wasn’t getting the words out,” he smiles at that memory. “The classmates started laughing. I kept going but I couldn’t get the words out. It was embarrassing. And all the pressure started to come in. I remember the teacher kept pushing me to keep reading and trying to get me out of it but I couldn’t. My classmates fell into an awkward silence. And I broke down.” The exam pressure had got to him. “It was during exams time. That pressure. I was never academic but I tried as much as I could. That pressure put me under real stress and struggle.” As he left the classroom that day after breaking down, he was gripped with fear. “I had real anxiety and there was a fear factor. I never nipped it in the bud.”
That was the start of his mental health problem, he says. “I still have triggers and situations if I don’t nip in the bud and I let it go on, it really kicks on. It’s amazing how the same feelings [of what he felt in the classroom all those years back] comes back. It’s really crucial to find support.”
The ups and downs of his professional career haven’t helped. A couple of weeks after he had starred against Pakistan in 2018 with a three-wicket haul on the last day to bowl England to a win – after scoring 49 as well – he was out of the team against India. Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid had been picked ahead of him. The worst was he couldn’t even get into the Somerset team as Leach was in the playing XI. “I was playing for the second XI,” he says.
He tried switching teams in 2019 and went to Yorkshire on a loan but that didn’t last long. “I struggled away with the loan situation (Yorkshire) I struggled really there.” He missed the old set-up and returned to Somerset.
Slowly he opened up, took professional help, and began to claw his way back. Near the end of 2019, he came to Mumbai with an ECB sponsored spin camp where the Sri Lankan left-arm spinner Rangana Herath was the coach for five days. He got into the England team for the tour of South Africa and has gone from strength to strength.
The Indian Express had a chat with Herath then, a casual talk about if there are good spinners he had met in the English contingent. “There is this boy Bess,” he had said then. “Nice high arm action. Energy at the crease. Was very keen to talk about the game. A lot about fielding positions.” The usual stuff, one thought; the full import hadn’t hit then, and the topic wasn’t pursued by this correspondent. Turns out that that time in Mumbai had been a vital role in Bess’s career graph.
The deep point we saw in Chennai came from one of the chats in the spin camp. Elsewhere, he has talked about it. Even after the four-for in Chennai, he would talk about the deep point and its role in his wickets. About that gap on the off-side inner ring. “I bowled good lengths and line to Kohli that didn’t allow them to hit through that offside gap.” Then one landed wider, outside off, and turned in sharply to surprise Kohli, who was looking to defend towards cover, bat face too open and was swallowed at short leg.
In another zoom chat, this time run by Somerset County club between him and Leach last July, he talked about his art. It’s clear that he is someone who puts a lot of thought in his bowling. “For me it’s the landing on the crease with a really strong base. Both feet shoulder-width apart, make sure my upper body and my shoulders rotate up and over.”
Bess maintains a journal where he writes all the suggestions and spin thoughts down. “If I come across someone with whom I have had a chat, I will write it down. I am an overthinker and me and Leach talk a lot about the game. That’s where your growth comes in.”
He is working on variations like the carrom ball – he calls it “flicker ball” – and has a back spinner where “he rolls his thumb under the ball”. But by trial and error, he has decided that the stock ball is the key for him.
“Bowling the best ball over and over again is hard enough. I drop my bowling arm lower at times to create a different angle, it comes out from a different position. I use the crease a lot more. I use the seam angles better. I am now at a stage where I feel that my good ball is good enough if I can vary the angles of release and the angles at the crease. And the natural variation off the wicket is massive.”
The Indians would agree. In his chat with Trescothick, he goes back to a moment in South Africa just after a good performance in a Test at the Cape Town. “I was sitting with Parky [Matt Parkinson, the leg spinner] and Zak [Crawley] overlooking the table mountain with a beer. It made me laugh. I was so glad to open up and offload everything. A couple of months after all the struggle, there I was!” Sipping the sweet taste of success. A beer now, gazing at the sea in Chennai would probably taste even better.