Jack Leach’s journey has not been easy.
What intrigues most of the sports writers all around are the behind-the-scenes events that unfurl before a debutant is set to make his appearance on the international circuit. How do these ordinary youngsters strive and push the hurdles to set foot on the pedestal? What are the sacrifices that they need to entail to keep performing well amidst the glaring eyes of the public, where even one blip can lead to unforeseen events? What is the journey that has been traversed by these players – both physical and mental and how and when did his uprising in the domestic arena begin?
Unfortunately, it is only the robust athlete who ooze out truckloads of charisma on the field that are fit to be termed as an athlete. We identify future sportsmen with swift gazelle-like movements that are feline and effortless at its core. Anyone who lacks the graceful presence of the stereotypical cricketer is rejected and glanced over. Jack Leach, with a receding hairline that goes with his bespectacled frame, goes against the conventional figure of who one might call “naturally athletic”, but nonetheless the latest Test debutant has stamped his position as one of the heroes in Somerset.
The left-arm orthodox spinner who picked up 51 Division-One wickets in the Specsavers County Championship at an average of 25.78 last year was dealt with a terrible blow in 2016 after he was enjoying his gains in Portugal after almost spinning Somerset to their first County Championship. Routine tests in Loughborough had revealed that Leach was guilty of bending his arms at an angle of more than 15 degrees, and it was not long before the “chucker” was seen with disdain all around.
However, much to his relief only a slight tweaking was required to pass the test with his head held high. He would earlier straighten his arm after it passed his shoulder, which was soon rectified. “It was a very small minor change, it wasn’t something that I was getting an advantage from – it wasn’t like I was bowling doosras. I felt like me getting a stronger action and a cleaner action would actually make me a better bowler.”
After working with the English and Wales Cricket Board’s sports psychologist Chris Marshall, Leach returned a stronger bowler, with no negative thoughts to hold him back. Along with the breakthrough domestic season, that included 18 wickets in the last two Somerset triumphs at home in 2017, he got helpful tips from Australian spinner Nathan Lyon when England Lions were in Australia just ahead of the Ashes in November.
Astutely observing the way that Lyon bowled in a country that otherwise does not assist spin bowling, Leach came back with the realisation that he too could instead try to get more variations in the air than getting assistance off the surface. He practised bowling quicker through the air to generate more over-spin and tactfully dealt with the front side and the delivery stride – ensuring that the gap was not as big, so he could get up and over the top more effectively.
But while many aspirants watch without implementing the nuances, Leach worked hard on his lessons and emerged as the England Lion’s highest wicket-taker in West Indies during the three unofficial Test series. Though his side was routed 0-3, he picked up 18 wickets at 21.16, up against Mason Crane’s figures of one wicket in as many matches. It was thus ironical, and some can even say destiny, that Crane, who played in the Ashes despite averaging 45.19 with just 47 wickets in the County for the last two years, had to pave the way for Leach after the former was ruled out of the Tests in New Zealand.
However, with the selectors putting their trust in Moeen Ali, it was considered yet another opportunity lost for Leach, but a below-par performance in England’s loss against New Zealand at Auckland, wherein the bearded all-rounder scored 28 runs in two innings without a wicket meant that the 25-year old from Taunton stepped out in the playing eleven in Christchurch.
However, the fact that he belongs to Taunton, a ground that has been re-laid to be called as England’s most spin-friendly track might make Leach’s art unalluring to many. But with Mike Atherton explicitly stating that England need a spinner going forward, this ploy might actually give the national team a long-term prospect in the form of Leach, who has mastered his skills on the slow Ciderabad track.
He gets plenty of overs to bowl, which otherwise would not have been the case in a country that is highly skewered in favour of the seam and swing bowlers. He has learnt the importance of using the crease, the pace and the angles of the deliveries. Though the orthodox left-arm bowler has variations like the under-cutter and the arm-ball in his arsenal as well, he relies more on his stock delivery to create a ruckus. The lack of mystery in his bowling, however, is replaced by accuracy and the temperament that sees him succeed even on non-turning wickets.
The red-ball specialist, who has never played a T20 game and last played a 50-over match almost three years ago, draws inspiration from Daniel Vettori – and not only because the Kiwi also stands out for being a cricketer to play with glasses! “I look at Daniel Vettori and Graeme Swann – guys who bowled pretty classical spin but managed to make it work in all three formats. That’s definitely something I think I can do.”
With England on a winless 12-match streak, Leach has his opportunity to turn the tide with a bowling performance that could see him cement his place in the side after much hard work and perseverance.