‘It’s a problem all of their own making’ – Mark Butcher slams England’s handling of Jack Leach
Speaking on the Wisden Cricket Weekly Podcast, Mark Butcher heavily criticised England’s long-term handling of Jack Leach, after the left-arm spinner struggled in the first Ashes Test at the Gabba.
Leach claimed 1-102 in the first innings against Australia from 13 overs, conceding at a rate of 7.84 runs per over. Travis Head blasted the third-fastest Ashes century of all time as Australia completed a nine-wicket win to take a 1-0 lead.
Butcher, who played 71 Tests for England between 1997 and 2004, came down hard on England for excluding Leach in the lead-up to the Ashes. “I would encourage people to go back through the pods through the summer to get an idea of what I think about the way Jack Leach has been handled, and Jack Leach’s role in the England team and Jack Leach’s likely role in the Ashes, and how England have completely and utterly stuffed that up,” he said. “They’ve messed their own chances of winning an Ashes series up in doing so.”
The Gabba Test was the first Leach was picked for outside of Asia since the first Test of Chris Silverwood’s tenure as head coach, in New Zealand in late 2019. Leach has been left out of all of England’s home Tests in the last two years despite impressing in the final Test of the 2019 summer, taking 4-49 in a series-levelling win against Australia. He was also England’s best bowler in India earlier this year, claiming 18 wickets at 28.72. Dom Bess and Moeen Ali, off-spinners who each offer more with the bat than Leach, have been preferred at home, with England also going without a spinner for the first three Tests of the 2021 summer.
“Go back to the New Zealand series. Jack Leach has just come off his best ever performance for England, in India, albeit in very different conditions, the ball turning, spinners ruling the roost in India,” Butcher said. “But he’s confident. He feels like he’s a member of the team. He’s contributing and is in the best physical and mental shape that he could possibly be as an England player. Come the summer, England decide that if Ben Stokes isn’t going to be available or Chris Woakes isn’t going to be available, there’s no place in the team for Jack Leach, so Jack Leach doesn’t play in two friendly matches against New Zealand. He should have played. He then doesn’t get a gig in any of the Test matches against India [at home].”
In Butcher’s opinion, this meant Leach couldn’t get valuable match practice, while also ensuring England were unsure of the Somerset man’s capabilities ahead of the Ashes. “I argued from a very very long time back that England are going to need to know if Jack Leach can hold first innings and then perhaps do what he’s most renowned for, which is take wickets when the pitch starts to turn at the end,” Butcher said. “They are going to need to know that because in Australia you have to have a spin bowler who can bowl a third or maybe slightly less than a third of your overs when it’s roasting hot and the Kookaburra ball has gone flat and the pitch is flat, you have to have somebody. That’s how Australia have been successful, that’s what Nathan Lyon has been able to do for them as he goes past 400 Test wickets as a finger-spinner, stunning performance. You have to have that. There’s just no way around it.
“And so knowing that that was the case, they had to find out if Jack Leach can do that. And if that meant only playing a four-man bowling attack against New Zealand, three quicks and a spinner, to see if Jack Leach could do that or not, then so be it. Do that, because that’s preparation for what might come later. They decided they weren’t going to do that, he didn’t play, so he then had no Test-match cricket whatsoever from his best-ever performance up until the toughest series that he’s ever going to play in, and then gets thrown in for the first Test against a team full of left-handers on a pitch with no spin in Brisbane. And guess what? They decide they are going to come charging at him like the light brigade and smash him out of the park. Now they’ve got a massive, massive problem, and it’s a problem all of their own making.”
Butcher also felt that picking a specialist spinner throughout would have given them a better chance this summer, when England lost 1-0 to New Zealand and were 2-1 behind to India heading into the postponed Test at Old Trafford.
“It’s all very well saying you’re preparing for the Ashes, but it’s the actions that are required. And the actions are, trying to play a balanced XI to win Test matches. And that actually isn’t preparation for the Ashes, that’s just playing good Test cricket. England decided they were going to play without a spinner full stop for large portions of the summer.
“You could look back at some of the conditions that we played on in England and say that that was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but it’s not. It just isn’t. The greatest Australian team that I played against, come hell or high water, it doesn’t matter if it’s a two-day game or a four-day game – and admittedly the spin bowler we’re talking about was Shane Warne – went in with four bowlers. They went with their four best bowlers and they all had specific roles, and those roles would come into play throughout the course of a five-day Test match, which is why Australia in this Test match were able to name their team three days out from the start of the game. It didn’t make any difference to them whether it was going to be a shortened game, whether the pitch was going to be very, very green or whether the pitch was going to be brown and flat. It made no odds. Because they had the attack that was going to be able to cope with whatever conditions came up over the course of the five days.
“England do it a different way. They leave it until the last minute to pick the team, they then try and guess what the pitch is going to do on day one and day two, and then forget about what’s going to happen further on down the line. This sounds like a very harsh critique, but I’ve watched them do it. Since that Wanderers Test match in South Africa, where Dom Bess had taken wickets in the series-winning matches in South Africa, and they decided to go in with five quicks at the Wanderers. They won the game but I didn’t agree with it then and I certainly don’t agree with what it’s now led to. It’s led to a situation where England’s spin bowler, their No.1 spin bowler, has no bowling under his belt in Test match cricket. They have very little confidence in him. He has very little confidence in himself, and now they are going to be thinking very seriously about playing five quicks in the day/night Test match.”
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