Jack Leach has been transformed by England's new regime

·5 min read
England's Jack Leach celebrates after taking five wickets during the fourth day of the third cricket test match between England and New Zealand at Headingley in Leeds, England, Sunday, June 26, 2022. - AP
England's Jack Leach celebrates after taking five wickets during the fourth day of the third cricket test match between England and New Zealand at Headingley in Leeds, England, Sunday, June 26, 2022. - AP

In the caricature of England under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes, Jack Leach is not an obvious fit. McCullum has talked of “sexy cricket”; no skill in cricket is more mundane than orthodox finger spin. And so, for a side committed to unadulterated attack, Matt Parkinson’s leg-spin, or returns for Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, which McCullum has floated, would all seem to have greater allure.

Yet no England cricketer - not even Jonny Bairstow, who had already hit two centuries in 2022 before the new regime arrived - has been more transformed than Leach so far this summer. The shift was visible simply from England’s team sheet at Lord’s: for the first time since 2019, Leach was picked at home.

It was in keeping with Leach’s luck that he didn’t even manage an hour until being ruled out with concussion. But since his first bowl under Stokes at Trent Bridge, a second shift in the use of Leach has become apparent: not just picking him at home, but empowering him.

On the first morning at Headingley, Leach was brought on in the 13th over, and snared Will Young with his first ball. In the second innings, Leach became the first English Test spinner to open the bowling for 13 years at home so that he could attack Young again. If the gambit didn’t quite work, it attested to Stokes’s endorsement of Leach as a bowler who could help win England Test matches in all climes.

Vindication, for player and captain alike, arrived just after half past three on the fourth day at Headingley. At the end of New Zealand’s second innings, a queue of England cricketers formed near the boundary rope. They were all waiting to embrace Leach, who had just completed his second five wicket-haul of the match. He is just the fifth England spinner in the past 45 years, after Phil Tufnell, Monty Panesar, Graeme Swann and Moeen Ali, to take 10 wickets in a home Test.

Jack Leach of England leads his side off after taking 5 wickets during Day Four of the Third LV= Insurance Test Match at Headingley on June 26, 2022 in Leeds, England. - GETTY IMAGES
Jack Leach of England leads his side off after taking 5 wickets during Day Four of the Third LV= Insurance Test Match at Headingley on June 26, 2022 in Leeds, England. - GETTY IMAGES

Even more satisfying for Leach, he had got there by improving upon three of the weakest areas of his Test record. Outside Asia, he had only taken two wickets per Test. When England have bowled first, Leach had only taken seven Test wickets at 80.6 apiece in the first innings; in the first innings at Leeds, he took 5-100. Leach also arrived at Headingley averaging 52.3 against left-handers; he left it having dismissed five left-handers.

On one level this transformation reflected the natural vicissitudes in fortune. Leach has seldom been a lucky cricketer; the freakish dismissal of Henry Nicholls in the first innings, and feasting on the tail were long overdue.

Stokes’s approach as captain has been to focus on what players can do, not lament what they cannot. In both innings, he swiftly moved to deploy Leach to left-hander Nicholls. On one level this was curious, given Leach’s aversion to left-handers. But Nicholls has a poor record against left-arm spin, and Stokes backed Leach to make it worse.

Leach has also been aided by deft fields. On the fourth day, mid on and off were brought up to encourage Michael Bracewell to hit over the top; he duly launched a six over long on. Leach then asked Stokes if he wanted mid on, but the skipper brushed aside the idea. Bracewell, denied the oxygen of being able to clip the ball away for a risk free single, was caught at the square leg boundary two balls later.

Ben Stokes and Jack Leach. - GETTY IMAGES
Ben Stokes and Jack Leach. - GETTY IMAGES

Allowed to settle into a rhythm, Leach has bowled better. Compared to at Trent Bridge, Leach has found more turn, more drift and bowled fuller at Headingley. Only twice in his previous 24 Tests had Leach found a good line, on or around the batsman’s off stump, so frequently. He also used his subtle variations, dismissing Tim Southee with an arm ball.

Perhaps most encouraging is how Leach has tweaked his method to become more dangerous against left-handers. As he explained after play, Leach this summer is releasing the ball from wider of the crease to southpaws, creating a more dangerous angle when confronted with flatter pitches than those he grew up on in Taunton. He is also now able to bowl with extra speed - he is about three miles per hour quicker than when he debuted in Test cricket - without sacrificing his turn.

“I just feel like I’m in a place where I can bowl that bit quicker but still with shape on the ball, whereas before it might have been quite flat, not much on it, with that pace,” he explained after play. “I feel like I’m getting more energy, more drop, maybe more bounce, and those things are helping to left-handers.”

Until this summer, Leach’s first-class average against left-handers was 38.2 apiece; this season, he has taken 14 first-class wickets at 12.2 apiece. It remains a small sample size, but if Leach’s gains against left-handers are durable, England will have a far more rounded spin bowler.

Already, Leach has gone a long way to winning England the Headingley Test. Michael Bracewell’s match haul of 2-134, from just 18 overs, sits pitifully alongside Leach’s 10-166 from 70.5.

As the “1* (not out)” t-shirts in evidence in Leeds attest, Headingley will always be the scene of Leach scoring the most famous one not out in Ashes history. Now, this storied ground could soon be the scene of bowling England to a home Test victory.

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