National counties cricket: ‘an excellent stepping stone’ says Bess

England's Dom Bess (L) walks to the bus after the Test series against Sri Lanka was postponed at the P. Sara Oval Cricket Stadium in Colombo on March 13, 2020. - England's cricket team abruptly pulled out of a tour of Sri Lanka on March 13 over the mounting coronavirus pandemic. A practice match in Colombo was halted as the team announced they would be flying back to London, and the first of two Test matches due to start on March 19 has been postponed. (Photo by LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP) (Photo by LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP via Getty Images)

The pathway from the national counties game to county cricket and even international level has never been so clear, with role models from Cornwall to Cumbria in growing numbers.

As anyone who tuned in to watch England’s series win in South Africa this winter will testify.

Dom Bess and Mark Wood played a full role in a triumph which propelled Joe Root’s side into contention for a top-four place in the World Test Championship, despite it not being that long ago that the pair were playing for Devon and Northumberland in National Counties cricket.

“They were very, very happy days,” says Bess, who took his first five-wicket haul for England against South Africa in the Test at Port Elizabeth in mid-January.

That performance was the clearest indication yet that the Exeter-born off-spinner is to the manor born for international cricket. It also illustrated just how far he had come since making his bow for Devon in the then Minor Counties Championship back in 2015.

The family name is synonymous with the county. Bess’s cousins, Luke, Zak and Josh, have all represented Devon in recent years, while last season the England man re-acquainted himself on the cricket field with them while playing for Sidmouth in a Premier League fixture against North Devon.

The chance of him doing that again will very much depend on how the first class season pans out this summer, and whether or not he is given a chance to add to his current haul of four Test caps.

Either way, he has every reason to be thankful for the education he received in the then Minor Counties championship.

“I think it’s really crucial as a learning experience, especially around the age of 16 and17,” says Bess. “There was a year when I couldn’t get into the second team at Somerset. I was in my last year in the academy and ended up playing a lot for Devon. It was a great bridging gap for me as a cricketer because you come across a lot of good club cricketers and ex-professional cricketers who want to play a better standard than club stuff. It’s really competitive.

“It’s such a great bridge from club cricket to second XI, and it’s a great way of getting a volume of good cricket into you while also playing against good experienced players who know the game and how to go about it. You learn a lot.

“We were a very strong side and obviously I was very fortunate to have my cousins there with me as well. We had a great group of young players with a little bit of experience and it was just so much fun.”

“National counties cricket was a great bridging gap for me as a cricketer because you come across a lot of good club cricketers and ex-professional cricketers who want to play a better standard than club stuff. It’s really competitive.”

The England man – who become the third youngest spinner to take five wickets in an innings for his country, after Pat Pocock and Derek Underwood, in South Africa this winter – took his first sporting steps in the nets at Sidmouth.

And if he needed any inspiration it was provided by Josh, who played for Devon for 11 seasons and was part of the side that won the Minor Counties Championship final against Cambridgeshire in 2011. He won the man-of-the-match award in a thumping 169 demolition job.

At the time, England’s new spin star was still at secondary school. Dreaming of Saturday afternoons at the club’s famous Fort Field ground.

Just five years later, though, he would be receiving his education at the Minor Counties finishing school.

“I remember we were playing against Berkshire and they had Chris Peploe, an ex-Middlesex player and very good minor counties player. He smacked it everywhere and took me down a bit. However, it was a real learning curve about how to bowl to experienced players and it was a great step for me.

“It’s a great route into the first class game and now we’re seeing players like Ben Green, Tom Lammonby take the same path. I’ve always had players like that, players who I have grown up playing with as youngsters, so Devon has been a great stepping stone.”

Dom Bess

If anyone needed reminding of just how invaluable National Counties can be, then the sight of Wood and Bess in England colours sends out the most powerful message possible. Bess’s spin-twin partner, Jack Leach, also has experience of playing for Dorset.

“There are some really good links between the National Counties and the first class counties now,” says Bess. “There’s Somerset, but also Nottinghamshire have got a great link with Devon through Chris Reed. Like I said, it’s really bridging the gap for the academy lads. If they don’t get in the second XI they go and play a lot down at Devon.

“I know Kasey Aldridge is a youngster from down here. He played a lot for Devon last year and it was a stepping stone for him last year because he has now gone on to play for England under-19s and will probably be looking to play in the second XI at Somerset this summer depending on what happens. It is a great stepping stone.”