Zero to hero

How bowler Jack Leach fought back

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - Tim Wig­more

In Oc­to­ber 2016, Jack Leach was on hol­i­day in Por­tu­gal: a break well earned in­deed af­ter a mag­nif­i­cent sea­son had al­most spun Som­er­set to their first County Cham­pi­onship ti­tle. Then, a num­ber flashed up on his phone. It was the Eng­land Lions coach Andy Flower. A few min­utes later, Leach’s hol­i­day was ru­ined. He was told that, af­ter rou­tine tests at Lough­bor­ough, his bowl­ing arm bent more than the per­mit­ted 15 de­grees.

“It was a shock to me and peo­ple work­ing with me,” he re­calls; no first-class um­pires had ever ques­tioned Leach’s ac­tion. “I didn’t want to be branded as a cheat. It isn’t a par­tic­u­larly nice thing to hear.”

Eigh­teen months later, Leach re­ceived an­other phone call. This time, it was Eng­land se­lec­tor James Whi­taker. Leach’s meta­mor­pho­sis from chucker to the Eng­land Test squad was com­plete.

“I’m some­one who deals with set­backs rea­son­ably well and tries to move on pretty quickly and find a way of solv­ing them rather than feel sorry for my­self,” Leach re­counts. “That was how I tried to deal with it – crack on straight away and look to put it right.”

Leach did not need to change much of his ac­tion. Fail­ing the Lough­bor­ough test was the re­sult of a kink: Leach straight­ened his arm just af­ter it passed his shoul­der. “It was a very small mi­nor change, it wasn’t some­thing that I was get­ting an ad­van­tage from – it wasn’t like I was bowl­ing doos­ras … It felt like me get­ting a stronger ac­tion and a cleaner ac­tion would ac­tu­ally make me a bet­ter bowler.”

So the big­gest chal­lenge Leach had to over­come was not tech­ni­cal but men­tal. This was his great achieve­ment last year: ris­ing above all the un­wanted chat­ter to take an­other 51 Divi­sion One wick­ets. He con­tin­ues to work with Chris Mar­shall, the Eng­land and Wales Cricket Board’s sports psy­chol­o­gist, who helped Leach “deal with those neg­a­tive thoughts around the ac­tion”. Yet the Leach who will be seen in New Zealand has evolved from the bowler who took 18 wick­ets in Som­er­set’s vic­to­ries in their last two home games of 2017. For that, Eng­land have Nathan Lyon to thank.

While in Aus­tralia with the Lions

– he only nar­rowly missed out on an Ashes berth – Leach stud­ied how Lyon thrives in what is oth­er­wise no coun­try for fin­ger spin. “That was a big thing for me, go­ing about my train­ing and play­ing in games and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it my­self and then watch­ing Nathan Lyon. The en­ergy that he gets on the ball – get­ting it up and down well, beat­ing guys in the air and still bowl­ing at good pace around 58mph – re­ally opened my eyes to how I could try and do peo­ple in the air a lit­tle bit more rather than off the sur­face.”

Leach be­lieves he can now bowl a lit­tle quicker and gen­er­ate more over­spin. “It’s about how I use my front side and de­liv­ery stride – mak­ing sure it’s not too big, so I can get up and over the top, some­thing that Lyon’s par­tic­u­larly good at … I learnt a hell of a lot.”

That was borne out by Leach’s suc­cess in the Eng­land Lions’ first­class se­ries in the West Indies, even as the team were routed 3-0. One com­par­i­son was par­tic­u­larly irresistible: while Leach took 18 wick­ets at 21.16, Ma­son Crane took only one for the cost of 115 runs. That Crane played in the Sydney Test de­spite a far in­fe­rior record in the last two County Cham­pi­onship sea­sons – 47 wick­ets at 45.19, com­pared with Leach’s 116 at 23.59 – speaks of how Leach’s art is al­to­gether less al­lur­ing.

Some have ques­tioned Leach’s re­turns, be­cause his home is Taun­ton – Cider­abad, in its re­cent in­car­na­tion as Eng­land’s most spin-friendly first-class ground. Yet, in a land where spin­ners are of­ten pe­riph­eral, Leach has em­braced a rare pres­sure.

“Usu­ally as a spin­ner in Eng­land you’re maybe there to con­tain and prob­a­bly don’t bowl as many overs. Ev­ery­one plays cricket to be the man to win the team the game. That has been a great thing for me as a spin­ner.”

Two years ago, Som­er­set played Sur­rey in one of the first games at Taun­ton’s new spin-friendly tracks; Leach got four wick­ets in each in­nings. Yet, “walk­ing off I felt like I’d let the boys down. That was a big learn­ing curve: be­ing strong enough men­tally to cope with that re­spon­si­bil­ity of be­ing the guy to take the wick­ets. It’s a skill in it­self to take on that pres­sure of be­ing the man.”

Sheer graft is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to a bowler like Leach, who has an un­der­cut­ter and arm ball but is an ortho­dox left-arm spin­ner. “There’s no mys­tery in terms of balls that go the other way, but there’s more sub­tle changes: how I use the crease, and an­gles and pace.”

This per­ceived lack of mys­tery might ex­plain why it took un­til Leach was 25, two sum­mers ago, to be­come a Som­er­set reg­u­lar. And it ex­plains why, when he joins Eng­land’s Test squad, they will find a throw­back of a crick­eter. It is not just Leach’s glasses, more ef­fi­cient ac­coun­tant than in­ter­na­tional sports­man. It is also that, in the Twenty20 age, Leach is es­sen­tially a red-ball spe­cial­ist: he has not played a 50-over county game for three years and has never played a pro­fes­sional T20 game at all.

“I look at Daniel Vet­tori and Graeme Swann – guys who bowled pretty clas­si­cal spin but man­aged to make it work in all three for­mats. That’s def­i­nitely some­thing I think I can do,” he says. “At one point I did try and copy Vet­tori and got a stress frac­ture so I went away from that.”

Per­haps this is the hall­mark that has un­der­pinned Leach’s cir­cuitous route to the top: trust­ing in him­self. “I’ve learnt a hell of a lot over the last cou­ple of years – from some re­ally good mo­ments to some down times.”

And, 12,000 miles away from Por­tu­gal, Leach might soon ex­pe­ri­ence the thrill of be­com­ing Eng­land’s 684th Test player.

Learn­ing curve: Jack Leach says he has ben­e­fited from watch­ing the Aus­tralian spin­ner Nathan Lyon in ac­tion

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