‘Now I feel like I belong’: Leach out to create better memories in New Zealand

<span>Photograph: Fareed Khan/AP</span>
Photograph: Fareed Khan/AP

After a week spent rekindling the feelgood vibes of their transformative 2022 – four days of golf and adventure sports on New Zealand’s South Island before heading north to begin training – England’s Test squad pitched up in Hamilton on Tuesday.

This sleepy city on the meandering Waikato River hosts a two-day tour match against a New Zealand XI before the tourists take on Tim Southee’s Black Caps in Mount Maunganui next week. With the first of two Tests a rare day-night affair, the one-off warm-up that starts tonight is also a pink-ball fixture.

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England’s previous visit to Seddon Park came three years ago when a run-soaked draw on a grim pitch condemned them to a 1-0 series defeat. Greater drama was unfolding away from the ground, it transpired, Jack Leach was in hospital for 48 hours after food poisoning turned into a potentially life-threatening diagnosis of sepsis.

As such, a few “bad memories” came flooding back for Leach when the team walked into the Novotel on Tuesday. These were fleeting, however, with the 31-year-old a different character these days and approaching this tour with unbridled positivity.

“I was on a drip and had antibiotics in the other arm. It slowly got worse and worse,” said Leach, recalling the worrying episode in 2019 that was triggered by his ongoing management of Crohn’s disease with immunosuppressant drugs.

“I was really struggling. But that’s all in the past and I’m having too much fun to get ill now, so hopefully it stays that way. [Crohn’s] can be stress related. Maybe being a little bit more relaxed is helping that side of my health. Fingers crossed it stays that way.”

Leach’s reference to fun sums up England’s outlook and few have embodied it more than the left-arm spinner. By his own admission, Test cricket used to make him worry about performance in a self-defeating manner, but under the sympathetic and ever-attacking captaincy of Ben Stokes, such thoughts have melted away.

Jack Leach makes an lbw appeal against Henry Nicholls during day three of the first Test at Bay Oval in 2019
Jack Leach makes an lbw appeal against Henry Nicholls during day three of the first Test at Bay Oval in 2019. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

The upshot was that Leach claimed 46 Test wickets last year, the most for England and, globally, one short of Nathan Lyon and Kagiso Rabada in joint first. Though those victims came at 38 runs apiece – a number that may have caused him to grimace in the past – Leach has again been convinced not to get too hung up. “It’s been probably the most important thing for me, that backing and feeling like I belong,” he said.

“I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as I can and do as much as I can for the team. I view things slightly differently, just how fun it is winning games.

“I would never think that average of 38 would mean 46 wickets in the past, maybe 20 wickets, 2.5 an over and not looking like taking a wicket. I’d love that to be 31, 32, but I know the only way I can do that is by bowling better, not safer. I need to be braver.”

Leach, who made his Test debut in Christchurch in 2018, is similarly unfazed by the lack of warm-up games and is confident he has done enough work in Taunton and on tour. It is very much the modern way, summed up by Australia going into their Border-Gavaskar Trophy series in India that starts on Thursday without a tour match.

Indeed, England’s primary focus since arriving in New Zealand has been on off-field enjoyment and togetherness, even if Leach decided to abandon their heavy diet of golf on Queenstown’s breathtaking courses after a couple of maddening rounds.

They will ramp up their preparations in the coming days, naturally, but the team-talks have been kept to a minimum in keeping with the philosophy of their Kiwi head coach, Brendon McCullum. Despite just three more Test matches before they attempt to win back the Ashes, no one is mentioning Australia just yet.

Leach said: “I always felt like cricket was an individual sport within a team, but this feels like such a team. It’s something I feel very lucky to have experienced because it’s a lot more enjoyable. We’ve spoken about memories that we’ve created over the last bit of time, but otherwise it’s been mainly enjoying Queenstown.

“The Ashes has not been talked about at all. In the moment, that’s something I’ve learned over the last bit of time. We’ll all get to that when it’s here.”