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England v New Zealand

It’s clear Ben Stokes trusts Jack Leach, and maybe we should too

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

England have begun to trust Jack Leach, writes Ben Gardner, and he is starting to reap the rewards.

Jack Leach deserves some luck. The illness and injury he has endured has been wide-ranging and almost always ill-timed, striking him down just when he was on the cusp of making a place in England’s team his own.

Here, he finally got some fortune. Leach wasn’t sure if the Laws of Cricket allowed Henry Nicholls to be out when Nicholls smashed the ball back down the ground, straight into the meat of Daryl Mitchell’s bat, and then into the hands of Alex Lees at mid-on, but they did. Leach had his second and England had a breakthrough. The celebration was joyous not just because it was a freakish dismissal, but because it was a vital one.

And yet that wasn’t the only unusual thing about Leach’s day. For the most part, his overs passed with little event, trotted through before taking his cap. It was the total amount of them that stood out, with his 30 overs amounting to the most overs bowled by an England spinner on day one of a home Test this century. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be now. Leach has England’s backing.

It’s unclear when exactly this happened, and it could easily not have done. That spell at the Gabba, when Travis Head smashed Australia’s second-fastest Ashes hundred and Leach went at nearly eight an over, could have spelled the end. Sure, he had been mismanaged in the build-up, given very little prep time and then thrown into the cauldron, but caveats matter little when an Ashes tour is headed south. England could have turned away from him and not turned back.

But they didn’t. And England appear increasingly content with the bowler he is right now. He was entrusted to shoulder the bulk of the workload in the Caribbean. By the end of his tenure, he had Root’s faith. Now, he has Stokes’ too.

This is especially relevant in the context of the last few weeks. Matt Parkinson’s legion got their wish, albeit in strange circumstances, when Leach concussed himself diving to stop four on day one of the McCullum era, and the Lancashire leggie hardly disgraced himself on a less-than-ideal debut. Then Moeen Ali, on the back of yet another phone call with Baz, officially unretired, live on Test Match Special, as New Zealand were nullifying Leach at Trent Bridge. If Leach were without his backers, England would have other options. But they are actively trying to include him, bringing him on early, selecting him when, in the past, they would likely have not.

At home in recent years, England have picked four seamers first, and then included a spinner if they had a spot left available. Here, with Ben Stokes – a doubt ahead of this Test due to illness – not bowling on the first day, Leach was entrusted with a third of England’s overs. Given their attack included a man a day away from turning 36, a previously stress-fractured 23-year-old making his way and playing his ninth first-class game of the summer, and a tearaway on debut, Leach struggling would have left England with a tough decision about where to turn. Instead, he produced a lengthy spell that was occasionally threatening and never profligate. Conceding just 2.50 runs per over, exactly matching the day’s run rate, he helped keep New Zealand to 225 runs in the day. England have played Test cricket at fast-forward so far this series, but this was a day for sitting in, and Leach played the role well. England’s trust will have only increased.

There were the early signs of confidence returning too, after that winter of toil, the first Test concussion, and the curtailed build-up ahead of the second that left him, by his own admission, short of his best. His first ball of the day, which drifted in to beat Will Young’s forward prod, was a good one, and that zip returned in flashes throughout. In the last over, some extra bounce hit Tom Blundell’s glove and looped away to safety. The stifled half-shouts, the oohs and aahs that signify pressure building, rather than the game just being placed on pause, have at times been absent from Leach’s game. Slowly, they are beginning to come back.

Oddly, as Leach has become more a part of the furniture of this England side – today’s game was his 25th, a commemorative cap awarded by James Anderson in the pre-match huddle – his cult hero status has lessened. Some have started to question Leach. He is a limited bowler, defensively minded and struggling for incision on pitches which don’t offer assistance. He is also still not quite at his best, and not quite the bowler who claimed an Ashes-levelling four-wicket haul less than three years ago. But limited does not have to mean bad, and knowing and making the most out of your own limitations can be a good thing.

Leach isn’t Parkinson, capable of bowling magic balls that send social media into a frenzy. And he isn’t Moeen, with a home strike-rate and a cover drive to die for. But what he is can still be enough, and England see it that way right now.

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