The ancient Greeks believed that the battlefield was ruled by two mischievous gods: Phobos and Deimos. These deities would stalk among the tight ranks of soldiers and whisper tales of terror.
One unit would get spooked and, like in a herd of zebra, the fear would ripple through the entire army until a rout was on the only predictable outcome.
This is what it must feel like being a batter in the South African camp when a spinner is bowling. He doesn’t have to be a very good spinner. He just has to trundle towards the wicket, loop his arm over, give the ball a twirl and watch ordinarily world-class batters tangle themselves in a heap of knots.
Dominic Bess bowled tight, disciplined lines at St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth. Sometimes he gave the ball a little air to draw the batter forward, sometimes he darted it in to push the batter back, sometimes he bowled with a round-swinging arm to change the angle of attack.
What he didn’t do is bowl like Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralitharan or any of the spinners for the ages. And yet, he dismissed every one of South Africa’s top-five batters to leave the hosts in tatters at 109-5.
The carnage started late on day two on Friday after England had amassed 499-9 declared. The way centurions Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope flayed the ball suggested the pitch was a dream to bat on.
This theory gained momentum when Dean Elgar and Pieter Malan strode to a 50-run stand without much fuss. Then Bess came on to bowl.
From 50 for no loss South Africa closed the day on 60-2, with Malan and Zubayr Hamza playing poor shots to softly lose their wickets.
A new dawn brought new challenges but the same old problems for those spooked zebras masquerading as Proteas batters.
Elgar prodded at Bess and was caught at silly point for 35. Faf du Plessis looked to be aggressive and hit Bess for consecutive boundaries down the ground, but his exuberance meant he pushed too hard at a ball that spat and was caught at short leg. Rassie van der Dussen looked a muddled mess for most of his short stay before erroneously cutting a ball that was too close to do so and was bowled.
Bess’ story is an uplifting one. Forever Jack Leach’s understudy at Somerset, he has trained under Sri Lanka’s Rangana Herath because he was seen as a possible like-for-like bowler – one not blessed with ‘freakish ability’, as one media release put it, but someone who had worked on developing subtleties and skill.
He’d get the chance to showcase both in Cape Town after Leach was ruled out with sustained health complications. Under the watch of Table Mountain Bess did a decent holding job, and his dismissal of Elgar in the first innings was well earned. But headlines were committed to other more attractive performances.
St George’s Park was always going to offer assistance to the spinner. Keshav Maharaj, a bowler with more experience and perhaps more natural ability than Bess, picked up a fiver at a cost of 180 runs at over three an over.
Something else was at play in Bess’s performance. Something more sinister and complex and hard to quantify. Like spooked soldiers on the plains of Thebes or skittish zebras in the Serengeti, fear gripped the prey Bess was hunting.
‘At one stage I did think about ten wickets,’ Bess said, exemplifying the dominance he wielded. ‘But then I thought it was greedy. Some of the lads were taking bets and reckoned I’d get it.’
A South African victory is out of the equation. But a draw is there for the taking which would give them a chance to going for a knockout blow in Johannesburg next week.
England need 14 wickets to deny the Proteas a series victory. Bess has said he wants them all. He just might if the hex he cast on Saturday is anything to go by.
Photo: Gallo Images