BDoing a Test spinner is a bit like being a guitarist in Radiohead. There are times when you are absolutely essential to the success of the business. Then there are the times when you’re so peripheral you might as well have stayed home. You are never completely in, but at the same time you are never completely out. If Chennai and Sharjah are The Bends, then Trent Bridge on a cloudy early summer afternoon is probably analogous to one of Kid A’s more ambient cuts.
When you are an English spinner, the contrast is even clearer. On useful surfaces or in the Asian subcontinent, you’re often expected to roam the sides on your own. At home, meanwhile, the requirement is impeccable control, unless the conditions are particularly difficult, in which case you will not be required at all. There are few roles in cricket whose demands are more varied and less reconcilable, where the margins of error are so unforgiving.
Then there is the cultural burden. In a way, you are an avatar for an entire tribe in decline, a case study for the whole system, for English spin bowling itself as a concept. Perhaps that is why so few succeed in doing so. It’s hard to focus on your job and fulfill your role on the team when no one is quite sure what that role is, and no one can really agree that the job should even exist.
Certainly, when Jack Leach rushes bowling these days, he looks like a man preoccupied with far bigger issues than line, length and tear.
There’s a heaviness in his step, a stiffness in the approach of his arm, an innate caution that envelopes him like static electricity. Since his debut in 2018, according to data from Cricviz, he has gradually become a flatter, shorter and faster bowler. He hurries through his overs. Of course, on some level, he tries to take wickets. But above all, he also tries not to hurt himself. Leach is now 30, many times cursed with injury and illness, and like many players in this transitional England side there is neither an established presence nor a strength to come.
He remains hugely popular in the dressing room, as shown by the way he was gobbled up by delighted team-mates when he finally won his first wicket on day four. He retains the support of his captain Ben Stokes, who shoved a 15-plus ball into his hands and gave him most of the afternoon to prove himself.
And yet, the feeling of drifting was palpable. Not the right kind either. Unable to tie an end or find a way through, the New Zealand batsmen hoodwinked him for 78 dismissive runs in 20 overs. Will Young hit him halfway for four. Devon Conway disdainfully knocked him down before free digging into the depths. Henry Nicholls attempted a reverse spin on his second pitch. From Brisbane to Nottingham, word seems to have spread that Leach is here for the taking.
So: a temporary anomaly or a longer-term trend? Well, Leach’s bowling average and strike rate have gone up every year. So far in 2022 he has averaged 41 with a wicket for every 97 balls. His record in the first round is shocking. His record against lefties is shocking. At Lord’s, he was eclipsed by his replacement Matt Parkinson. In the first innings here he was milked, swept and hit for 140 of 35 overs.
As Stokes tries to boost Leach’s confidence, new coach Brendon McCullum is open about recalling Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali. Moeen, for his part, commented on this game for BBC radio, making it clear that he is ready to return to the testing side.
All of this raises an interesting paradox: if your main bowler offers no penetration or control, if he is neither an experienced header nor developing talent, if his alignment and hitting are not better than acceptable, then what is it used exactly?
You wonder if, deep down, McCullum already knows that. Certainly his own record demonstrates that he is not a fan of spin for fun: during his tenure as New Zealand captain between 2013 and 2016, no team except Zimbabwe took fewer Test wickets with spin. For all the sporadic skill of Bruce Martin and Mark Craig, his teams were often found without a recognized spinner. Above all, McCullum wanted more than control: he wanted to dominate and entertain.
Can Leach fit into this vision? Are there mysterious levels hidden in his talent? Is he able to improve at a rate that would justify keeping out younger or more offensive or more proven spinners? Or has a sympathetic, hardworking, poorly starred cricketer simply reached his natural ceiling? Soon, Stokes and McCullum will have to decide one way or another.