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England v India

Jack Leach deserves more credit than he gets

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

Ben Gardner argues that Jack Leach deserves more respect than he gets.

In September 2019, as the glow from Headingley and the World Cup final faded and England faced up to the fact that, for the first time since 2001, they would come out of a home Ashes series without the urn in their possession, Jack Leach gave them something to savour. Defending 398 to secure a series-levelling victory, he claimed figures of 4-49 in 22 overs of metronomic left-arm spin bowling, with wickets including Tim Paine, Australia’s captain, and Marnus Labuschagne, their find of the series.

It felt symbolic. Moeen Ali had come into the summer in possession, with Leach left out of the side during a Test series defeat in West Indies, despite having been joint-leading wicket-taker, with Moeen, in England’s clean sweep of Sri Lanka at the start of the 2018/19 winter. But as the off-spinner struggled through the World Cup and in the first Test of the Ashes, Leach finally got his chance at home, and while his summer is better remembered for two innings with the bat, 91 runs apart but each instantly gaining cult status, an average of 28 with the ball suggested he had what was needed to be England’s first-choice spinner. That Test at The Oval remains his last on English soil.

So what’s happened? For one, Chris Silverwood became England head coach. Before he took over, England last fielded a Test team without a specialist spinner against South Africa in 2012. Since then, they have done so on five occasions, relying on the part-time tweak of Joe Root and, latterly, Dan Lawrence.

There have also been off-field complications. Leach contracted sepsis while in New Zealand at the end of 2019, and feared for his life as he was hospitalised. While he recovered to be picked to tour South Africa, a sickness bug, and the after-effects of the former illness, saw him fly home without playing a game. Dom Bess impressed in his stead, claiming his maiden Test five-for, and subsequently retained his place back home, out-bowling Leach in a warm-up game before West Indies visited, and offering, in the eyes of the England management, more value with the bat and in the field, as well as, in some estimations, possessing a higher ceiling with the ball.

Bess’s averages that summer with bat and ball – each equal at 55.5, with the batting numbers boosted by five not outs – showed him to be what he is: a work in progress. Three Tests into the winter, despite England winning all three and him taking eight wickets in the first of those games, he was dropped after bowling eight overs for 50 in the final innings of the first Test against India at Chennai.

Throughout that tour of Asia, Leach impressed again, taking 28 wickets and, notably, dismissing Cheteshwar Pujara four times in six innings. And yet, upon returning to England, he was left out again, Joe Root’s team somehow contriving to have not a single all-rounder available, and Leach the man to make way to accommodate some extra batting depth.

In isolation, all these decisions are understandable, and yet taken together, you have a spin bowler who has a Test average basically equivalent to that of Graeme Swann, taken two five-fors and a further six four-fors, and has still played only 16 Tests in four and a bit years. Leach has never let England down, has the accuracy to hold up an end on day one and the Taunton expertise to bowl out a side on day five, and yet still England always seem to be holding out hope for something better.

It’s hard to pin down why, but something about Leach attracts a sort of anti-hype, like a reflective coating that directs focus on his best performances elsewhere. As Surrey played Somerset earlier this summer, Ravichandran Ashwin broke the internet as he claimed six-for at The Oval. Leach’s similar haul the day before went virtually unremarked upon.

Even now, as he might finally be about to get his much-deserved chance at home, the clamour is rising for another, with Matt Parkinson, an outlier in every way, winning the popular vote in comparison to Leach, the ultra-orthodox left-arm orthodox. Maybe it’s the lack of artifice and mystery. There’s little complication, just good balls bowled with enough spin in the same general area, and the sense to know when to vary his pace and his line. The thing is, that’s plenty.

With Ben Stokes out for the start of India series, England face another challenge over how to balance their side. The presence of Sam Curran means fielding five bowlers is still an option, but Bess or Jonny Bairstow will tempt Root and Silverwood to cover for the absence of their best batsman. Leach has earned his summer in the spotlight. Here’s hoping he gets it.

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