Jack Leach shines as England close in on Sri Lanka victory despite nervy start to chase

Vithushan Ehantharajah
·8-min read
Jack Leach celebrates the wicket of Wanindu Hasaranga (ECB)
Jack Leach celebrates the wicket of Wanindu Hasaranga (ECB)

In these uncertain times, the sight of Joe Root stumbling into the bowler on his way to a single that existed only in the mind of Jonny Bairstow, then jamming his bat into the ground short of the other end and tumbling over the crease with the stumps broken evoked warm feelings of familiar, comical despair. A moist, socially-uncomfortable hug from behind that only English cricket can give you on a Sunday morning.

A direct hit reduced England to 14 for three chasing 74. The captain, responsible for 228 of the 421 in the first innings, run out, whites soiled, for one. The sleep had cleared from English eyes and was soon to be replaced by a very unique brand of embarrassment.

But as England rallied to finish 38 for no further loss, Bairstow (11 not out) and Dan Lawrence (seven) surviving with assistance from second top-scorer Extras (9), they should awake on Monday to a win in this first Test at Galle. There may be a few more gulps to come, of that we can guarantee. But England fans can go about their Sundays with a little less worry thanks to bowling display characterised by five for 122 from Jack Leach.

There are a few jumping-off points from the Somerset twirler’s shift. The magnitude of this haul in his first Test since November 2019 and the 41.5 overs of graft to eventually see off Sri Lanka’s second innings for 359.

READ MORE: England’s new radical Dan Lawrence ready to be unleashed in Sri Lanka, home of cricket’s greatest mavericks

It was on this ground in November 2018 that he took his only other five-for. Like any maiden haul, it gave us license to pontificate on a future of further rewards. The smooth left-arm action, the late dip and turn provided reasons to admire. The spectacles and slightly awkward disposition reasons to adore.

A year later, he lay bed-ridden in New Zealand, hospitalised after a flare-up of Crohn's disease escalated to sepsis. Illness carried over into South Africa at the start of 2020, and as the year played out as it did, he wondered if he was an early sufferer of Covid-19. For a person who has not caught many breaks, it was a reasonable assumption to make, especially when he received a notification from the UK government confirming he was "high risk".

Leach celebrates in GalleECB
Leach celebrates in GalleECB

Ignored for England's six Tests last summer, he made just two appearances for Somerset in the Bob Willis Trophy. Unable to find any form of note, he arrived into this series with just 52 competitive overs in the last 12 months. He ended up bowling 6.5 overs more than that in this match.

With just one of his five second-innings wickets by stumps on day three, Leach talked of his lack of practice but without ever framing it as an excuse. "I'll be reflecting overnight," he said, "and we go again in the morning." And go again he did, with the help of his former Somerset teammate Dom Bess. The pair reeled in seven of the final eight Sri Lankan wickets to share 14 in the match.

Coming into the Test, Bess spoke fondly of the time during a second XI game against Kent four years ago when they spoke of bowling in tandem for their country one day. Surely not even during this idle, wide-eyed chat could they have sketched out a scene where Bess's first innings five wickets would set-up Leach's five in the second. Yet here they both are, a ball each for the mantlepiece from their first Test together, a couple of diligent Monday morning hours away from a win to kick-start 2021.

Dom Sibley is cleaned up by Lasith AmbuldeniyaECB
Dom Sibley is cleaned up by Lasith AmbuldeniyaECB

It was a testament to their sticking power on a day that felt a lot like the day before. They were unreliable with their lengths at first, allowing Sri Lanka to bed in. At one point it seemed only the pace bowlers could tie things down, Stuart Broad digging deep to find a five-over spell after lunch that returned four maidens and just one run.

Lahiru Thirmanne was allowed to bat serenely for his second Test hundred, cashing in on the life he was given on day four when he was dropped on 51 by Dom Sibley. A wide delivery allowed him to cut into the nineties, a full toss offered on 98 and then another cut fed to take him three figures from 227 balls. Whatever tension there was as he closed in on a first century in almost eight years was eased from his shoulders with the kind of opportunities he would have prayed for as he started the morning on 76. The second new ball and Sam Curran saw the back of him for 111, shaping away then cutting through him and clipping the left-hander's inside edge, taken carefully if not cleanly by Jos Buttler diving to his right.

The manner of Dinesh Chandimal's exit - Bess getting one to hold instead of turn and take an edge low to Joe Root at slip - suggested the start of a more fruitful period. England still held a 43-run lead, with half the necessary wickets in the bag, and

Mathews and Niroshan Dickwella wiped away part of that superiority. With that came a lingering thought in the minds of all involved that both could access their white-ball prowess for quick runs. Mathews eventually took that up when Sri Lanka had a single wicket remaining and a lead of 66. The 33-year-old had moved to a 36th half-century, the sixth score above 50 against England. That the last-ditch attempt at brisk scoring came too late, and for too little, was a reflection of England’s greater command of the situation.

Mathews had done what he could, taking Sri Lanka into the lead, albeit with a shot out of his control. A delivery from Leach bounced lower than expected, drawing a late thrusting of the hands from Mathews as if he was about to walk into a clean glass door. An under edge sent the ball past the stumps for four and Sri Lanka nipped in front by three.

England were on the verge of losing their nerve. A 286 lead had been turned over, the two scalps picked in the first session including nightwatchman Lasith Embuldeniya. With the pitch showing up-and-down variety to add to the difficulty of what was happening left-and-right, batting last was never going to be easy.

But the lead was only six when Bess separated Mathews and Dickwella, coaxing an edgy late-dab from the latter to end the last full-time-batsman partnership on 48. That would be the last of Bess's three wickets in the innings, though he continued to bowl smartly as Leach played the part of closer. Dasun Shanaka was yorked, and Wanindu Hasaranga caught at slip by Root via a deflection off Buttler right hand.

The wicketkeeper would have a more deliberate role ending the 38-run ninth-wicket stand, removing a bail while appealing for a caught-behind off Leach to catch Dilruwan Perera fractionally out of his ground. Remarkably, it was Buttler's first Test stumping in his 53 innings with the gloves. Only 28 of his 47 caps have been as the designated keeper, a nod to the uncertainty from the selectors and his captains. His four of six dismissals standing up should quell the rallying cry against him from Ben Foakes advocates, though it should be stated there is mutual respect between the two.

Lasith Ambuldeniya celebrates the wicketECB
Lasith Ambuldeniya celebrates the wicketECB

It's likely Buttler's involvement in the match is not done yet. Lasith Embuldeniya's brace showed the perils of brazen defence and outright attack: Dom Sibley (two) letting a delivery hit his off stump, and Zak Crawley (eight) skewing to Kusal Mendis at wide second slip with a drive. That 36 feels further away than the 74 did at the start. But maybe that’s just hardwired scepticism talking.

In a way, regardless of how Monday goes, Leach's performance deserves to be viewed without the filter of a result. He made that easier when he claimed his fifth and Sri Lanka's final wicket when Mathews (64) tried to locate a single in the off-side but only found the hands of Root at first slip. The column for five-wicket hauls cares not for wins, losses, draws or ties.

Leach propelled himself to cult hero status in 2019, a 99 from nightwatchman against Ireland, a single in the Ashes heist at Headingley and glasses-cleaning that won him a year’s supply for spares. And the longer he spent out of the game, the more those events were recalled, elevating him to a plane of caricatures and memes. A mock profile picture rather than poster boy.

But here was an important reminder he can be all those things as well as a cricketer to be taken seriously. A difference-maker on the pitch and, give or take 36 runs, a match-winner.

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