Jack Leach, a national hero last summer when he partnered Ben Stokes in the match-winning stand against Australia at Headingley, is returning home from England’s tour of South Africa without playing a game.
Leach has battled throughout his career with Crohn’s disease. When most of the England party were afflicted on their arrival in South Africa with a flu-like bug which has still not been identified, Somerset’s left-arm spinner suffered worse than most.
According to an ECB statement: "The Somerset left-arm spinner, who has struggled to fully recover from sepsis he picked up during the tour of New Zealand in November and was also struck with gastroenteritis and flu ahead of the first Test at Centurion last month, has not been able to reach the expected levels of fitness to be considered for selection. The England medical team, in consultation with Leach, felt to recover fully it would be beneficial for him to return to the United Kingdom. He will leave South Africa on Thursday."
“It has been an unfortunate time for Jack with illness, and since the Test series in New Zealand six weeks ago, he hasn’t been able to get 100 per cent fit,” said England head coach Chris Silverwood. “This has hampered his preparation in South Africa and despite his best endeavours he is not in a position to make himself available for selection for the final two Test matches.
“He is a great lad to have around the squad and his infectious personality and popularity will be missed. However, his focus has to be getting himself better and receiving the optimum levels of recovery and treatment, which is best served back in England without any distractions."
In England’s last practice session, on Monday, Leach batted and bowled in the nets but cut a worn and washed-out figure at St George’s Park. He also missed England’s second Test in Hamilton in New Zealand with illness, after taking two wickets in the first at Mount Maunganui in mid-November. He has not played any game since then.
Leach has taken 34 wickets at 29 each in his 10 Tests. If his health has not been working in his favour, England’s schedule is, because their next tour is to Sri Lanka in March and Leach was England’s leading wicket-taker there, with 18 wickets in three Tests, when they won 3-0 in late 2018. As a batsman, too, Leach achieved fame last summer by opening England’s second innings in their inaugural Test against Ireland and scoring 92 as a nightwatchman, while specialist batsmen struggled.
It has not been a happy tour for Cardiff University players as Rory Burns, who played alongside Leach as a student, had earlier been sent home with a bad ankle injury after being tackled by Joe Root in Cape Town.
Dom Bess is therefore an automatic selection for the third Test if England select a specialist spinner, which is expected in hot and humid weather. Bess bowled economically, though not penetratively, in England’s victory at Cape Town.
If Leach does not recover in the next two months, before England tour Sri Lanka for a two-match series in the World Test Championship, it is possible they will have none left of the three spinners who won the last series: Adil Rashid, who has since suffered long-term shoulder damage, Moeen Ali, who has been allowed to fall out of love with Test cricket and has been playing T20 and even T10 this winter, in addition to Leach.
The immediate question, though, is whether a specialist spinner is necessary at St George’s Park. It is perceived wisdom, but not endorsed by facts. All the major wicket-takers over the years, in the apartheid era and since readmission, have been pace bowlers, usually aided by the ball keeping low, or uneven bounce, both up and down.
South Africa’s current left-armer, Keshav Maharaj, is the only spinner to have taken a dozen Test wickets in Port Elizabeth since the 19th century, and his dozen have cost 30 runs each. In the absence of Leach, and due to the fact his deputy - the 22 year-old Bess - has only bowled 1101.1 first-class overs, England might be wiser if they tried to counter the heat, humidity and South Africa with an all-pace attack, aiming to win in four days rather than five as in Cape Town.