England are not having the best time of it in India. Back-to-back defeats of increasing severity have left them 2–1 down with one match to come on Thursday. A year that started with such promise is threatening disarray in early March.
A loss inside two days in Ahmedabad was followed by an unnecessary Twitter spat that drew as much scorn as the former. Factor in a stomach bug that was doing the rounds over the weekend and one imagines many within the touring bubble are counting down the days until it pops.
Jack Leach, however, can be relatively satisfied with how these weeks and indeed the last couple of months have gone. Since the start of the winter’s tour that began in Sri Lanka, he has picked up 26 wickets, taking his career tally up to 60 and his average down to 29.50. Through consistency and, more importantly, a desire to take the ball in big moments, he has grabbed a spot as England’s frontline spinner, not just in Asia where 44 of his dismissals have come, but further afield, too.
Rounding out a successful period has been news from his doctor back home that he has a Covid-19 vaccine with his name on it. It was around this time last year Leach received a message from the NHS asking him to shield given his “at-risk” classification on account of his Crohn’s disease.
“I’ve heard from my GP,” he said, when asked about his situation. “There’s one waiting for me.” Until then, the bio-security of a Test squad, with its stringent protocols, was the safest place for him to be. Even as we emerge from the pandemic, it is one where he unequivocally belongs. “My belief in myself is more than it has been in the past,” he said.
“I certainly feel this experience, the last five games, the trouble I had before that with the lack of cricket leading up to the series, the challenges on this tour and coming through them strong in my opinion, that has given me a lot of confidence. I don’t think I could really have expected much more of myself than how I’ve done and how I’ve got better through the tour.”
His 16 scalps in this series are third behind Ravichandran Ashwin (24) and Axar Patel (18), with the crux that being that his have come against seasoned players of spin. Of particular note are the three dismissals of Chesteshwar Pujara, picking the 33-year-old up in each Test, including for a duck in the third. Pujara, one of India’s more pro-active blunters of the turning ball, averages just 15 against Leach’s left-arm spin.
“Doing it out here in India against some top batters has given me lots of confidence and I know I still have lots of hard work to do but I’ve seen how I can come back from disappointment or tough times in games and put in good performances. That’s more pleasing to me than having it all my own way and bowling sides out. Obviously, that would be lovely and that’s where I want to get to, but to come through some tough moments in games and put in good performances has given me a lot of confidence.”
Behind the mild-mannered exterior is clearly a punchy cricketer. Jeetan Patel, who has just been announced as the ECB’s elite spin bowling coach, has been enamoured by his pluck. The former New Zealand offie was known for his fiery demeanour, along with his undoubted skill, of course. It speaks volumes that he recognises a desire for further improvement, perhaps even dissatisfaction from Leach at what he has achieved so far. That he could, and should, have done more.
“The way he has dealt with things over the past 14 months prior to coming to Sri Lanka,” stated Patel, “forcing his way in back into the side and proving his worth, is testament to the sort of character he’s got and what he wants out of his cricketing career. The one thing I have seen out of him is that it’s not enough to do what he’s doing. He wants to find ways of contributing further to this group. He knows there are improvements that need to be made.”
That forcefulness from Leach was especially evident when he was served another host of questions about the pitch. “I think the talk has all been in the media,” he said, forthrightly. “In the dressing room we are just trying to be better and get ready for the next match.”
While those noises continue into the week, the primary focus will be on salvaging a series win, of which Leach will need to dig deep once more. Should he sign off with more than seven wickets, he will set an English record for series hauls in India across four matches or fewer (Heldey Verity took 23 across three games in 1933/34).
As much as the players are hurting, and there is a strong whiff of a siege mentality among group after the last week, they could do well to learn from Leach. Illness last winter across New Zealand and South Africa, including a near-deadly bout of sepsis in New Zealand, was followed by a demoralising 2020 summer of inaction and tentativeness around his health.
And yet here he is, bolshy and dominant. An unlikely totem of defiance against an India flexing their muscles. England may be wanting to forget their two days in Ahmedabad ahead of hopefully more this week, but Leach sees it as fuel for an enduring spirit.
“From my experience whenever I’ve had a low moment it’s always turned out to be a good thing, I think. It’s all about how you view that low moment: it’s not nice at the time but if you approach cricket in the right way then I think good things can come from it. That’s definitely what we’re talking about and how we’re thinking.”