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In 2020, Jack Leach played only two first-class matches. In between fears about Covid-19 - as a sufferer from Crohn's disease, he received a text from the NHS telling he was an at-risk group at the start of the pandemic - he spent the summer sealed in England’s biobubble, without actually playing a match.
Happily, England’s winter tours meant that Leach’s left-arm spin was in demand once again. Over six Tests in Sri Lanka and India, Leach bowled more overs than any other bowler, took more wickets and left with a new status as England’s number one Test spinner. It was well-deserved indeed: Leach has now taken 62 wickets at a smidgeon under 30 apiece. Of England spinners in the last 50 years, only Derek Underwood and Graeme Swann have also taken over 50 wickets at an average under 30.
Naturally, the tour to India ended with England espousing the need to pay greater heed to spin. Yet, two Tests into the home summer, and all Leach has experienced is an encore of last year, ferrying drinks onto the outfield.
And so, as Joe Root sought to winkle out New Zealand’s third wicket on a benign Edgbaston pitch in the last throes of the evening session, he was forced to bowl himself. Root is a very useful off spinner - and one who has arguably been underbowled to left-handers in his career - but would not want to bowl 13 overs on the second day of a Test in England. Nor would he wish to hope that Dan Lawrence could bungle a wicket either.
That Lawrence, to his own palpable surprise, found enough turn to snare Will Young caught at short leg only emphasised how Leach may have enjoyed this pitch. The point had already been made on the opening day by Ajaz Patel, who took 2-34 in 14 overs.
But in the Chris Silverwood era, the ploy of eschewing a specialist spinner is nothing new. Edgbaston marks the fifth Test, out of 20, of Silverwood’s tenure that England’s final 11 has not included a specialist spinner.
The willingness to dispense with a spinner marks a radical departure, even with England’s long-held distrust of spin. Before Silverwood took over, England had only gone into a solitary Test - against South Africa at Leeds in 2012, an acknowledged mistake - without a spinner in the entire 2010s.
After the 2017/18 Ashes, England vowed that they could never again head down under reliant on four right-arm English seamers bowling a little over 80mph, no matter how skilled. Ever since, England have tried to develop a balanced, varied attack, as the sight of Olly Stone and Mark Wood bowling in tandem attested. And yet this apparent desire for variety seemingly does not extend to picking a spinner - even though England have consciously asked for flatter pitches this summer to develop as a team.
“We want to play on good pitches,” fast bowling coach Jon Lewis confirmed after play. “We want to challenge our fast bowlers to take wickets on good pitches.”
That Lewis did not mention the need to challenge spinners on such wickets was revealing. England’s preoccupation with building for the away Ashes - which, whether rightly or not, has dominated England’s thoughts in Test cricket since 2019 - has informed their willingness to sacrifice some of their own home advantage this summer to improve their prospects down under.
The notion of being able to play two of England’s 90mph trio - Jofra Archer, Stone and Wood - in most, or even all, the Ashes Tests is alluring. Yet neither Australia nor other foes are likely to be toppled with pace alone. Across their two 2-1 Test series victories in Australia in 2018/19 and 2020/21, India’s spinners took 43 wickets in eight Tests.
In a sense, England’s troubles with balance this series are merely a reminder of England’s great fortune in recent years. Their phalanx of allrounders - not merely Ben Stokes, but also Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Sam Curran too - has allowed England to dodge unpalatable decisions about the balance of their attack. When these players are available and England can field a genuine five-man attack, it will be altogether easier to accomodate a spinner.
Yet the suspicion remains that Leach’s challenge - no matter his fine Test record - is not merely to prove that he merits a Test place. It is also something greater: to grapple with against English cricket’s institutional suspicion of spin.
England need Broad and Anderson to fire once more
By Scyld Berry
It is going to be “a big new ball” shortly after the start of day three, and England need their two record-breaking icons - James Anderson and Stuart Broad - to strike with it, otherwise New Zealand are destined for a match-winning lead.
Like Russian icons, records can dazzle, especially when big numbers are involved, as if a Chicago gangland boss is waving a cigar and a fistful of dollars. Anderson and Broad are garlanded with laurels, and deserve all of them and more, but England now need wickets urgently from them and the rest of this strangely selected attack which features two speedsters - one of them, Mark Wood, far from fresh after bowling 34 overs at Lord’s - on a pitch that is not quick, and dry enough to turn over this hot weekend.
In his 162nd Test, more than anyone ever for England, and the third highest of all wicket-takers, Anderson merited an ovation from a full house rather than Edgbaston limited to 70 per cent capacity. Last winter he was superlative in Sri Lanka and India, as effective as he has ever been overseas, because he moved the old ball around more than ever. But that was then, and this is now, and England want him to add to the two wickets he has taken so far this series.
Broad bowled his best since January in Sri Lanka. The crowd made his competitive juices flow again, and he moved into sixth place in the all-time list of Test wicket-takers, ahead of Courtney Walsh, when Devon Conway became Wicket 520. Broad was the pick of England’s bowlers, really excellent in his opening spell, and as fast as ever, but the bald stat is that since that field-day in January he has taken three wickets and this is his fourth Test. Again, England need their strike-bowlers to strike, and to illuminate the present as well as the past.
Broad’s contribution extended to bringing his influence to bear on having the ball changed after 41.1 overs. Don’t ask, don’t get, and eventually the first ball, which had not swung for England, would not pass through Richard Kettleborough’s gauge.
Re-armed and rejuvenated, Broad went past Devon Conway’s outside edge twice in the rest of that over, and after Conway had flicked to deep square - it might have been a tactic based on the shot which brought up his hundred at Lord’s - Broad gave Ross Taylor a thorough workover. We saw that Edgbaston phenomenon which might be the product of high stands around the ground, when the ball boomerangs after passing the bat. Allan Donald was a past master of this ball which defies explanation, at least by baseball experts, by swinging not before pitching but afterwards.
Taylor’s first cricket as a child in New Zealand was the Samoan version of the game, a cousin of the sport we know, and a pretty remote one when it comes to rules - like 18 players a side, or 200 if it is one village against another in Samoa - and also to batting equipment. The bat itself is more of a club, much longer and heavier than normal ones. Wielding it demands a lot more bottom hand, less front elbow, hence Taylor’s proclivity to work to leg and square-cut.
The one drawback to the supremacy of Anderson and Broad occurs if they do not strike with the new ball, whether first or second. England’s head coach Chris Silverwood has stated England do not want to be giving anyone in the next Ashes series a Test debut, because it would be too much of a novelty; and at this rate Ollie Robinson and Craig Overton, while they might be given the odd Test, are not going to be given the new ball in preparation. Were Anderson and Broad rotated, others would be able to gain invaluable experience.
The indisputable fact is that Anderson and Broad have played ten Tests together in Australia, and won one of them, at Adelaide in 2010-11. England should not be putting all their new balls into one basket.