By Peter Hayter
Taking into account the many and various ways fate has conspired against Jack Leach in his attempts to get his England career going, the sight of him taking the field in the first Test against India at Edgbaston next month would be one of the more heart-warming in recent times.
The dilemma facing Ed Smith and his selection panel is that, while the Somerset left-arm spinner’s inclusion would be a nice story, the fact that he has played so little competitive cricket this summer doesn’t necessarily mean it would be the right one, especially as India’s batsmen have been known to play his type of bowling in their sleep.
So, whether they like it or not, with England’s need to play a front-line spinner in the second Test series of the summer acute, in upcoming matches for the Lions against India A and for his county against Worcestershire in the championship the following week, both at New Road, the spotlight will be on Leach to see how he rises to the challenge of coping with the pressure of expectation.
On the grounds of fairness, the guy could do with a break.
If it’s true that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, he must be as ready as he’ll ever be.
The catalogue of extraordinary mishaps is worth recalling in full.
Sixty-five wickets at 22 for Somerset in 2016 won him a place with the Lions in the UAE, but news then emerged that he had not been considered for the senior tour to India as a routine test at Loughborough had flagged up a kink in his action.
The remodelling work done, he later admitted to suffering agonising doubts about how he would be regarded when he came back.
“It was a really dark time for me,” he said. “You’re worried about what people are going to say about you – whether you’re going to be seen as a cheat.”
Fifty-one Championship wickets last season earned him further Lions recognition on their winter trip to West Indies and, finally, against New Zealand at Christchurch at the end of March, his first Test cap and the second innings wickets of Tom Latham and Ross Taylor.
He kept things tight and tidy and former England spinner Graeme Swann felt he might even have bowled his side to a series-squaring victory had captain Joe Root allowed him more orthodox fields.
He was then all set to make his home debut in the series against Pakistan in May when he fell foul of the kind of freakish injury with which he has become all too frustratingly familiar.
First, ten days before the first Test at Lord’s, and already nominated by Smith to play there, he broke his left thumb in a fielding drill with Somerset head coach Jason Kerr before the final day of their Championship match against Hampshire, his absence allowing his county team-mate Dom Bess his chance to shine.
Then, in his comeback match against Surrey at Guildford after six weeks out, Leach took a nasty blow on the helmet from the giant Morne Morkel, carried on batting after changing his lid but was subsequently ruled out of the rest of the match and the next one against Essex with concussion.
Not for the first time, either, as two years ago he suffered a double fracture of the skull when he passed out when getting up in the middle of the night to relieve himself and was out for eight weeks with the same injury.
All of which means the sum total of Leach’s bowling in first-class cricket this summer amounts to fewer than 70 overs in which he has taken three wickets for 210 runs, and not a single delivery in first-class cricket for more than three weeks.
That lack of competitive bowling was put into perspective by the fact that he sent down 25 on the first day of their 2nd XI match on an unresponsive pitch against Sussex at Taunton Vale this week, alongside the returning Marcus Trescothick, incidentally.
Kerr is encouraged at how well Leach has been operating in practice.
“He’s been bowling beautifully,” he says, “so well that you wouldn’t know he’s missed any cricket.”
And he is keen to dispel any fears England may have about rustiness, too.
“The injuries have meant Jack has not had the ideal season so far and clearly these two matches for the Lions and against Worcestershire are important for him as regards confidence and rhythm.
“But the important thing will be for him just to concentrate on bowling and enjoying it without getting ahead of himself.
“He will fully deserve his chance when it comes but if he goes out thinking about Test selection or what might happen in three weeks’ time that will just distract him – and that’s what I’ll be saying to him.”
Easier said than done, of course, when so much is at stake, and the last thing England will want in the first Test against Virat Kohli’s men in Birmingham is an undercooked spinner.
There are alternatives, but not that many.
Bess is also playing for the Lions against India A and England liked much of what they saw from him in May, though probably more with the bat at this stage.
Adil Rashid seems to have ruled himself out of contention and fellow leggie Mason Crane is out for the season after a recurrence of a stress fracture.
Moeen Ali is a possible short-term option should England feel Leach would be too much of a risk but they would almost certainly consider that a backward step too far.
One way or another, the next fortnight will give Smith & Co. what are known, apparently, as key indicators and, on the evidence of how Leach has dealt with the fates and the many and various ways they have conspired against him thus far, the most key of them all appears to be that he doesn’t know when he’s beaten.
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