Rain prevented a four day finish in Pallekele with Sri Lanka needing 75 runs to level the series. England require just three wickets, thanks in part to the excellence of Jack Leach. Patrick Noone analyses the performance of England’s newest cult hero.
It is unlikely that Jack Leach ever envisaged that he would star in a Test match opening both the batting and the bowling. Yet that is what has transpired in Pallekele as the Somerset spinner followed up his stint as a nightwatchman-opener in England’s second innings with an 11-over spell with the new ball before lunch on Day 4.
It might only be Leach’s third Test, but he is quickly gaining a reputation as something of a cult hero in this England set-up. There is something about his appearance as a seemingly free-wheeling, moustachioed larrikin taking everything in his stride that appeals to certain part of the psyche of the England cricket fan. Throw in his wicket celebrations; a mixture of surprise and boundless joy reminiscent of his predecessor Monty Panesar – another fan’s favourite – and it’s easy to see how he’s become such a popular figure at Taunton and beyond.
None of that should mask what Leach evidently possesses in abundance: the quality to succeed in Test cricket. It’s easy to forget that he was England’s incumbent first choice spinner ahead of the home summer this year after being handed a debut in New Zealand. Only injury prevented him from playing against Pakistan and the decision to go back to Adil Rashid, and then the return of Moeen Ali, meant that Leach’s road back into Test cricket was longer and more winding than he perhaps deserved it to be.
He stuck at it though, much as he did during his spell before lunch today. Leach found the ideal length to bowl almost immediately and his repeatable action allowed him to land it there time after time. 63% of the balls he bowled pitched between 3m and 5m from the stumps. That’s the equivalent of seven of his 11 overs landing in that in-between length that batsmen struggle with so much. Within that range, Leach landed nine balls on a particular sweet spot between 3.7m and 4.0m that accounted for just five runs and all three of his wickets.
Leach is not a bowler who gets prodigious turn – the 5.8° he’s found in this match is the lowest of England’s three frontline spinners – but he is able to maintain control while also being a threat. His match has been defined by the Sri Lanka batsmen’s inability to decide whether to stick or twist. They’ve attacked him less than any other spinner, yet Leach has picked up more wickets than any other England bowler in the match because he’s found ways to dismiss batsmen even when they don’t take unnecessary risk.
All three of England’s spinners have made contributions on this tour so competition will be fierce for the upcoming tour of the Caribbean, not to mention next summer’s Ashes on home soil. Leach offers significantly less with the bat than both Moeen and Rashid, despite his promotion to the top of the order, but it would seem unfair for that to count against him in future selection meetings.
Based on pure bowling contributions from the trio, it is hard to look at Leach as anything other England’s first choice spinner. Moeen is the only bowler who can match his 12 wickets across the two matches in this series, but Leach’s economy rate of 2.67 is far superior to Moeen’s 3.54. Again, it’s that combination of threat and control that have made Leach such a valuable member of this England attack.
Crucially, Joe Root trusts Leach to carry out all of these things. There have been suspicions in the past that previous England spinners have not had instilled sufficient confidence in their skipper to be thrown the ball when required. That situation can lead to a downward spiral from the lack of trust resulting in a lack of confidence and ultimately a drop in performance level.
That Leach has earned the backing of Root, to the point where he is even thrown the new ball, is something he deserves immense credit for. It would have been easy for Root to see Leach as the most junior member of the attack and to not back him to the extent he clearly does. Instead, Leach’s quality has forced him to the front of the queue and there is no reason he can’t stay there if he continues to have more days like today.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.