Zero to hero
How bowler Jack Leach fought back
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