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Analysis

Chastening day casts doubts on Jack Leach's further participation in the series

It would be no surprise if England field an all-seam attack for the rest of this series, relying only on Root's part-time spin

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
09-Dec-2021
Jack Leach grimaces after a chastening day  •  Getty Images

Jack Leach grimaces after a chastening day  •  Getty Images

It was a red rag to The Bull. David Warner rode his luck against England's seamers during his innings of 94 on the second day of the Gabba Test but as soon as Jack Leach came into the attack 25 minutes before lunch, he set about trying to take him down.
Warner had never batted long enough to face Leach during his torturous Ashes series in 2019, but his intent off the first ball of spin in his innings revealed Australia's plan to hit him out of the attack. He hit a half-volley straight back to the bowler on the bounce but with such power that Leach fumbled, smiling wryly after seeing Warner's aggression.
There were not many more smiles across the course of the day though. Leach conceded only a single from his first over but Warner hit two straight sixes off the first three balls of his second, using his feet to turn both balls into half-volleys and comfortably clearing the long-on boundary. Warner averages 60.40 against left-arm orthodox spin in Test cricket with a strike rate of 76.55, and batted like he had against Imad Wasim and Mitchell Santner in the knockout stages of the T20 World Cup, taking down a favourable match-up with the ball spinning into his hitting arc.
Marnus Labuschagne was just as positive, giving himself room outside his leg stump and trusting his hand-eye coordination to flay him through the off side. He fell after lunch, mistiming a cut the ball after lofting him for a straight six, but Australia remained ultra-aggressive and threw him off his plans completely. He reverted to bowling flat at the pads with a packed leg-side field, yet Warner and Travis Head were still able to slog-sweep boundaries. By stumps, Leach had 1 for 95 in 11 overs.
"We spoke about being positive against the spin," Head said. "With it being hot, we wanted the [seam] bowlers to come back as much as possible. The guys had batted extremely well and earned the right to - in the right moments - take him on, and the tempo and the balance and the nature that they did that in was just fantastic. Marnus got out doing it - I know he was disappointed - but I felt like it set the tone for the series."
The result was that Joe Root had to revert to his seamers, even bowling a half-fit Ben Stokes ahead of Leach as the second new ball approached. Leach was described by Jon Lewis, England's bowling coach, as a "resilient fella" - and has even responded from similar onslaughts in the past - but it is hard to see him playing any further part in this series barring a miraculous recovery.
Leach's struggles reflected two wider trends in his bowling: he has consistently struggled against left-handers - he averages 60.81 and concedes 4.16 runs an over against them, compared to 24.59 and 2.72 respectively against right-handers - and has been significantly less effective in England's first bowling innings of any given match than in their second.
In that light, Leach always looked like a strange pick for this series: Australia have four left-handers in their top seven, and two of the right-handers, Labuschagne and Steven Smith, average above 90 against spin in home Tests. It is not a coincidence that there is a sustained pattern of failure for left-arm fingerspinners in Australia, with the miserly Ravindra Jadeja the only recent exception to the rule.
But while Australia were clinical in pulling off their game plan, Leach's Test career in the last two years has been a masterclass in mismanagement. In the most recent Ashes Test at The Oval in 2019, he took 4 for 49 in the fourth innings to bowl England to a series-levelling victory but since then has been an option of last resort.
He struggled on a flat pitch at Mount Maunganui in the first Test of Chris Silverwood's reign as head coach, taking 2 for 153 in 47 overs across both innings, and since then has only been used in Tests in Asia. He was England's leading bowler across the tours to Sri Lanka and India earlier this year but did not play a game in the home summer, and has fallen victim to an ingrained mistrust of spin within the English game.
Leach has spent two home seasons in a row running the drinks for England and looked short of rhythm. He struggled to find his length, dropping short and overpitching regularly, and was punished: he bowled 23 full balls which cost 51 runs. After he was taken down by Rishabh Pant in Chennai earlier this year - all five of Pant's sixes in an innings of 91 came against Leach - he suggested he would benefit from playing more one-day cricket to aid his defensive skills, but he spent the vast majority of the Royal London Cup as an unused member of the Test squad instead.
England spinners have been marmalised in Australia on their last two tours: Graeme Swann retired three Tests into the 2013-14 series with seven wickets at 80.00 to his name, while Moeen Ali's five wickets cost 115.00 apiece in 2017-18. There are no obvious back-up options, either: Dom Bess took 4 for 80 against Australia A on Wednesday but conceded 3.48 runs an over, while England's attitude towards spin was epitomised by Matt Parkinson's omission from the Lions team for that game.
Having fielded all-seam attacks in six Tests during the Silverwood era, it would be no surprise if England do so again throughout the rest of this series, relying only on Root's part-time spin after Leach's chastening day. And so, after two years of planning and repeated insistence that winning in Australia was the Test side's only priority, England will find themselves relying on a battery of right-arm fast-medium seamers once again.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98