Jack Leach: ‘It’s been a nice realisation that maybe my ceiling is higher’

·8-min read

Jack Leach’s Test summer began as ominously as his winter had. Six months after Australia had crashed 103 runs from 13 overs in Leach’s first bowl of a disastrous Ashes, Zak Crawley passed him his phone in the dressing room on the eve of the first Test back. On it was a Youtube compilation of their new coach, Brendon McCullum, chasing balls down to the boundary in his playing days, diving head-first across the ground and hauling the ball back in, stopping certain fours in the name of saving one run. England’s left-arm spinner, one of many vulnerable places in a side sieged with uncertainty, sat next to his equally jeopardised teammate watching it for a minute, awestruck. They took mental notes.

Twenty minutes into the first Test the following day, as fate would have it, Leach found himself chasing a ball destined for the rope. “I suddenly thought to myself…” He pauses as if to re-consider the options presented him, then says, “Oh god, I’m going to have to get my Baz McCullum out here.”

The only thing was Leach hadn’t ever attempted to do “a Baz McCullum” before. “Obviously I’m not as good an athlete as him,” he concedes, as if this has been learned in hindsight, “so I didn’t do it particularly well.” Leach crashed into the barrier, for a second cartwheeling head over heels. Then there was a sudden stillness, the worrying sort, before he moved his buried head in his hands, atop a relieved silence across Lord’s. As he was taken from the field, escorted by the uniformed grey of England physios, it almost didn’t need announcing. He had suffered a concussion and would be playing no further part in the Test.

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Jack Leach suffered concussion when fielding in the first Test against New Zealand
Jack Leach suffered concussion when fielding in the first Test against New Zealand Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

While the rest of his teammates emulated their coach in more successful ways throughout that opening week, sparking a dramatic about-turn in England’s fortunes that saw them dismiss New Zealand 3-0 and thrillingly waltz home against India too, it would have been forgivable to forecast it as Leach’s final act for England for a while. He had not bowled through the entirety of the previous summer, forced to spend his time instead watching a plagued England try to balance Ben Stokes’ absence, then was bowled into the ground in the West Indies tour post-Ashes, typical of a few disorientating years in and out of the side.

The potential end wasn’t lost on Leach himself. “I was suddenly thinking, oh no, maybe that’s it?” He, though, was pleasantly surprised when he spoke to McCullum after the crash. “I was pretty down about it,” he says, remembering apologising to his new coach, “but Brendan just went ‘are you kidding!? That’s everything we want to be about!” Leach began to reframe his concussion with McCullum’s enthusiasm for it. “That’s something I’ve learned from him. The less you focus on the end result, often the better. It’s all about your attitude in the moment.” As he waited it out, cleared to come back for the second Test, even the result of the chase began to feel more positive. “I started to think, well, I guess I did stop four. Technically I saved a run too.”

Since Leach made his England debut in Christchurch in 2018, he has inherited the kind of tag that reserves itself for English left-arm spinners. Like Monty Panesar, Phil Tufnell and even Ashley Giles before him, his presence has often been considered a slight anomaly for an elite international. This, usually, is by quirk of personality or appearance. In Leach’s case, it’s both. He is disarmingly self-deprecating, affable and unusually for a sportsman, has spent much of his time in an England shirt in glasses. Perhaps even more than his peers, as well as endearing a left-field sort of affinity across the country, it has tended to point to a different kind of vulnerability. Regardless, his four years and 26 Tests in an England shirt have packed into them a remarkable sequence of flashpoint moments.

There’s famously stopping play at the other end of Stokes’ heroics at Headingley to clean his glasses, before running headfirst towards him as he hit the winning runs. Just as endearing, there’s also running towards Jos Buttler screaming: “Caught Buttler, bowled Leach! Caught Buttler, bowled Leach!!” as his childhood friend claimed a catch in Sri Lanka off his bowling. There’s his cult classic 92 as nightwatchman against Ireland. Set these against his ongoing battle with Crohn’s disease and a torturous period of isolation in South Africa in 2020 with what would later be recognised as Covid symptoms, he has somehow evolved to embody, for the cricket fan, a bridge which ties mere mortals with Test legends, allowing us all to imagine that maybe that could be us too. This assumption is, of course, a grossly misunderstood projection in itself. Leach, as even he is finding out, is not just a survivor, but a bowler with a record deserving of his place at the highest level.

It is him visibly discovering this in earnest over the three Tests since his concussion that has made for the most satisfying of all the feelgood stories that have sprung from Bazball-era England.

Stokes has refused to do anything but believe whole-heartedly in him. He has been handed the ball to open the bowling. He has been refused defensive fields. He has led his teammates off, ball in his hand, the crowd standing to his first 10-wicket haul in Test cricket.

Jack Leach in action against New Zealand in June 2022
Jack Leach in action against New Zealand in June 2022 Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“It’s been a nice realisation for me,” he says, “that maybe my ceiling is higher than I realised. Ben is always convincing me of it. I’ll say ‘can we have mid-off out’, and he’ll be like ‘nope’. Then I’ll get whacked over the top and look round and he will be clapping and clapping, with a big smile on his face. It just made me think to myself ‘this is so great’. As long as my coach and captain are happy with how I’m going about it and it’s very clear and easy to follow, then I’ve not really got anyone else to answer to.”

The situation he is referring to, against New Zealand at Headingley, resulted in a catch, Stokes running backwards and taking it – one of his 10 for the match.

“I think it’s been easy to be affected by the way the outside is talking about us in the past. But we’ve had the realisation that we are able to tell our own story as well. It’s become more important to us than the outside noise, and that’s when you can really make something special happen. I’ve realised how negatively I can think and, especially in the longer form, because it’s quite cat and mouse, that actually sometimes I’m thinking ‘how can I not go for runs?’, rather than ‘how can I take wickets?’. That has changed this summer.”

After the India Test Stokes told the media what Leach had just said to him in the dressing room: “There will be teams that are better than us, but no one will be braver than us.”

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He semi-cringes at the memory. “I think people are going to think, because it came from me, that it was some sort of David Brent line.” Leach was one beer down. “It was genuine though. I was just so amazed at what had happened. We were behind in all the games. It made me realise that in the longer form especially, the mindset and the bravery you bring to it can take you quite a long way.”

He has never enjoyed bowling as much. “It’s rhythm and timing. When you’re feeling that as a spinner, it’s such a nice feeling. It’s almost like you know when a ball is going to come out well.” There doesn’t even need to be a ball involved at the moment. “I bowl a hell of a lot in any sort of mirror. If I see myself in any reflection down the street, I’m always like, I really want to bowl a ball. If there is a mirror in his hotel room, I’m screwed, because I’m going to turn up to training absolutely knackered having bowled 20 overs in the mirror the night before.” The physios have begun to tell him explicitly not to do it.

Leach’s dad found a wooden crate recently, with little boxes in there that cricket balls fit neatly into. He’s taken to keeping the balls from his sons five-for’s in each for posterity. “Everything I’m doing now, I never really expected,” says Leach, with a rare, genuine sincerity. “I was a bit of a late developer. I wasn’t even sure if I’d play professional cricket to be honest. I was only playing second team for Somerset for a while because they needed numbers. I guess it’s all gone a bit crazy since.” There are still 15 empty boxes in the crate. “I don’t have many targets with my career. I just think now I need to fill that box up for him.”

Test cricket returns on Wednesday against South Africa, back at Lord’s where he dived for that ball only two months ago. He can’t remember looking forward to a series as much. “If I’m honest, in the past I’ve gone into series being a bit apprehensive and worried about how it’s going to go. But now, it’s like being a kid again. I can’t wait.”