Jack Leach has not featured for England this summer
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In 2020, Jack Leach played only two first-class matches. In between fears about Covid-19 – as a sufferer from Crohn’s disease, he received a text from the NHS telling he was an at-risk group at the start of the pandemic – he spent the summer sealed in England’s biobubble, without actually playing a match.
Happily, England’s winter tours meant that Leach’s left-arm spin was in demand once again. Over six Tests in Sri Lanka and India, Leach bowled more overs than any other bowler, took more wickets and left with a new status as England’s number one Test spinner. It was well-deserved indeed: Leach has now taken 62 wickets at a smidgeon under 30 apiece. Of England spinners in the last 50 years, only Derek Underwood and Graeme Swann have also taken over 50 wickets at an average under 30.
Naturally, the tour to India ended with England espousing the need to pay greater heed to spin. Yet, two Tests into the home summer, and all Leach has experienced is an encore of last year, ferrying drinks onto the outfield.
And so, as Joe Root sought to winkle out New Zealand’s third wicket on a benign Edgbaston pitch in the last throes of the evening session, he was forced to bowl himself. Root is a very useful off spinner – and one who has arguably been underbowled to left-handers in his career – but would not want to bowl 13 overs on the second day of a Test in England. Nor would he wish to hope that Dan Lawrence could bungle a wicket either.
That Lawrence, to his own palpable surprise, found enough turn to snare Will Young caught at short leg only emphasised how Leach may have enjoyed this pitch. The point had already been made on the opening day by Ajax Patel, who took 2-34 in 14 overs.
Dan Lawrence took a vital wicket at the end of day two
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But in the Chris Silverwood era, the ploy of eschewing a specialist spinner is nothing new. Edgbaston marks the fifth Test, out of 20, of Silverwood’s tenure that England’s final 11 has not included a specialist spinner.
The willingness to dispense with a spinner marks a radical departure, even with England’s long-held distrust of spin. Before Silverwood took over, England had only gone into a solitary Test – against South Africa at Leeds in 2012, an acknowledged mistake – without a spinner in the entire 2010s.
After the 2017/18 Ashes, England vowed that they could never again head down under reliant on four right-arm English seamers bowling a little over 80mph, no matter how skilled. Ever since, England have tried to develop a balanced, varied attack, as the sight of Olly Stone and Mark Wood bowling in tandem attested. And yet this apparent desire for variety seemingly does not extend to picking a spinner – even though England have consciously asked for flatter pitches this summer to develop as a team.
“We want to play on good pitches,” fast bowling coach Jon Lewis confirmed after play. “We want to challenge our fast bowlers to take wickets on good pitches.”
That Lewis did not mention the need to challenge spinners on such wickets was revealing. England’s preoccupation with building for the away Ashes – which, whether rightly or not, has dominated England’s thoughts in Test cricket since 2019 – has informed their willingness to sacrifice some of their own home advantage this summer to improve their prospects down under.
The notion of being able to play two of England’s 90mph trio – Jofra Archer, Stone and Wood – in most, or even all, the Ashes Tests is alluring. Yet neither Australia nor other foes are likely to be toppled with pace alone. Across their two 2-1 Test series victories in Australia in 2018/19 and 2020/21, India’s spinners took 43 wickets in eight Tests.
In a sense, England’s troubles with balance this series are merely a reminder of England’s great fortune in recent years. Their phalanx of allrounders – not merely Ben Stokes, but also Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Sam Curran too – has allowed England to dodge unpalatable decisions about the balance of their attack. When these players are available and England can field a genuine five-man attack, it will be altogether easier to accomodate a spinner.
Yet the suspicion remains that Leach’s challenge – no matter his fine Test record – is not merely to prove that he merits a Test place. It is also something greater: to grapple with against English cricket’s institutional suspicion of spin.