Being a Test spinner is a little like being a guitarist in Radiohead. There are times when you are absolutely essential to the success of the enterprise. Then there are the times when you are so peripheral you may as well have stayed at home. You’re never quite in, but by the same token you’re never quite out. If Chennai and Sharjah are The Bends, then Trent Bridge on a cloudy early summer’s afternoon is probably analogous to one of the more ambient cuts off Kid A.
When you are an English spinner, the contrast is even sharper. On helpful surfaces, or in the Asian subcontinent, you are frequently expected to run through sides all by yourself. At home, meanwhile, the requirement is for immaculate control, unless the conditions are particularly seamy, 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 for error are so unforgiving.
Then there is the cultural burden. Somehow you are an avatar for a whole dwindling tribe, a case study for the whole system, for English spin bowling itself as a concept. Perhaps this is why so few manage to do it successfully. It’s hard to concentrate on your job and fulfil your role in the team when nobody is quite sure what that role is, and nobody can really agree on whether the job should even exist.
Certainly when Jack Leach runs up to bowl these days, he looks like a man preoccupied with far weightier issues than line, length and rip.
There is a heaviness to his gait, a stiffness to the way his arm comes over, an innate caution that shrouds him like static electricity. Since his debut in 2018, according to Cricviz data, he has gradually become a flatter, shorter, quicker bowler. He hurries through his overs. Of course on some level he’s trying to take wickets. But importantly, he’s also trying not to get hurt. Leach is 30 now, multiply cursed by injury and illness, and like many players in this transitional England side is neither established presence nor coming force.
He remains wildly popular in the dressing room, as shown by the way he was engulfed by delighted teammates when he finally took his first wicket on day four. He retains the backing of his captain Ben Stokes, who thrust a 15-over-old ball into his hands and gave him most of the afternoon to prove himself.
And yet the sense of drift was palpable. Not the good kind, either. Unable to tie an end down or find a way through, New Zealand’s batsmen milked him for 78 disdainful runs in 20 overs. Will Young clouted him over mid-on for four. Devon Conway reverse-swept him with disdain before gratuitously holing out in the deep. Henry Nicholls tried a reverse-lap off his second ball. From Brisbane to Nottingham, the word appears to have got out that Leach is there for the taking.
So: a temporary blip or a longer-term trend? Well, Leach’s bowling average and strike rate have increased every year. So far in 2022 he averages 41 with a wicket every 97 balls. His record in the first innings is shocking. His record against left-handers is shocking. At Lord’s he was upstaged by his concussion substitute Matt Parkinson. In the first innings here he was milked, swept and thumped for 140 off 35 overs.
While Stokes tries to build Leach’s confidence, new coach Brendon McCullum speaks openly about recalling Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali. Moeen, for his part, has been commentating on this game for BBC radio, making it brazenly clear that he is open to returning to the Test side.
All of which raises an interesting paradox: if your main spin bowler offers neither penetration nor control, if he is neither experienced head nor developing talent, if his fielding and batting are no better than acceptable, then what exactly is the point of him?
You wonder if, deep down, McCullum already knows this. Certainly his own record demonstrates that he is no fan of spin for its own sake: during his time as New Zealand captain between 2013 and 2016, no team except Zimbabwe took fewer Test wickets with spin. For all the sporadic competence of Bruce Martin and Mark Craig, his sides would often turn out without a recognised spinner at all. Above all, McCullum craved more than control: he wanted to dominate and entertain.
Can Leach fit into this vision? Are there mysterious hidden levels to his talent? Is he capable of improving at a rate that would justify keeping younger or more attacking or more proven spinners out of the side? Or has a likeable, hard-working, ill-starred cricketer simply hit his natural ceiling? Pretty soon, Stokes and McCullum will need to decide one way or the other.