It was a tense end to Day Four for England. Chasing 74 for victory in the first Test against Sri Lanka, they fell to 17 for three before steadying themselves to ensure only 38 will be needed on day five.
That the target was only 74 owes much to Jack Leach, who finished the Sri Lankan innings on 359 with figures of five for 122 from 41.5 overs. However uncomfortable Monday may be for the touring batsmen and those watching on from the changing room, the left-arm spinner has faith in Jonny Bairstow (11 not out) and Dan Lawrence (seven not out) who were able to see out Sunday.
“It was obviously big spin and with that new ball, against the Sri Lanka spinners, it was always going to be a tricky period. But I think we have consolidated really well. Jonny and Dan have played really nicely. The way Dan has played on debut has been really great to see. I feel like we can come back and get the remaining runs tomorrow.”
Leach’s optimism is perhaps rooted in perspective after what has been a tough 14 months. Since the last of the Somerset spinner’s 10 caps in November 2019, illness had put the brakes on a career that had just got going. He was struck down by a life-threatening bout of sepsis on that tour of New Zealand, and was hampered by further ill-health in South Africa at the start of 2020. As a result, this Test is only his third first-class match since that last Test appearance.
It was not surprising, then, that he felt sore after picking up his second five-wicket haul at this level. Compounding a lack of match time has been a lack of practice, with one intra-squad match for preparation in which Leach bowled just eight overs.
“It is nice to get some wickets on my return,” he said at stumps on Sunday. “But there were definitely some hard periods through that. It wasn’t all easy by any means. I thought our seamers bowled brilliantly and kept it tight. Bessy (Dom Bess, who took three wickets and eight in the match) also bowled brilliantly again. It was hard work. The last 12 months haven’t been ideal but good to be out there definitely.
“I found it hard on the body. You can bowl as many overs in the nets as you want but it's not the same as in the middle when you do put that extra pressure on yourself. You feel it a lot more mentally and physically so it's been a challenge but hopefully, a good one if we can knock these final ones off tomorrow.
“I think it's been hard graft out there and I've certainly felt a little bit rusty at times and felt like I could have done a little bit of a better job, but I think the pleasing thing is I felt like I got better as the game went on so hopefully that's a good sign.”
Even with the result still in the balance, though tilting towards England, Leach was able to reflect on the difficulties he has endured. He suffers from Crohn’s diseases, which puts him in the high risk category when it comes to Covid-19. Though he is used to managing it, he admitted to feeling the strain of managing his health while dealing with rigours of maintaining the high standards of international cricket. At the same time, the former helps him appreciate the latter.
“Coming back from South Africa, I found difficult after being ill in New Zealand and then feeling like I got myself back for the South Africa tour before picking up more illness in South Africa. Being completely exhausted from that and not able to return to a good enough level to play in that series and return home early. I found that a tough experience to go through," Leach admits.
“I try and use those lows to propel me on to highs and it puts things into perspective. If I'm healthy and fit and able to play, that's the main thing - I don't take that for granted."