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Match Analysis

Cult status alone can't sustain Jack Leach as New Zealand prove tough nut to crack

Key wicket opens door for England, but figures take a dent in tricky return to action

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
Jack Leach managed to dismiss Devon Conway to instigate New Zealand's collapse  •  Getty Images

Jack Leach managed to dismiss Devon Conway to instigate New Zealand's collapse  •  Getty Images

Early in Jack Leach's first spell on this fourth day at Trent Bridge, with New Zealand having lost an early wicket and hoping to avoid a Tricky Third Innings wobble, a delivery bowled from over the wicket to Devon Conway brought excited gasps from the crowd. What was it that had got them going? Turn and bounce from the rough outside the left-hander's off stump? A devilish new variation that Leach had been working on back at Taunton, aka Ciderabad?
Not quite. Conway had been done, all right, going back to one outside off - but it was the classic "straight-onner", skidding past the outside edge and into Ben Foakes' gloves. The ball may have actually turned a fraction, but to all intents and purposes it carried on through on its original path, whether by design or otherwise (Leach isn't really known for his arm ball). Bit of flight, some natural variation. "Bowling, Nut!"
To get to the rub: England doesn't really do spinners, and slow left-armers don't really do mystery. But Leach isn't the sort to be deterred; persistence in the face of adversity is basically his calling card. In Barbados over the winter, he ploughed through 94.5 overs - the heaviest workload by an England spinner in 60 years. Leach took six wickets in the match, but his side were still five short of forcing victory when time ran out.
But Leach has had plenty of success overseas - particularly in Asia, where he averages 27.32. At home, he struggles to get a game. This match in Nottingham was his first Test on UK soil since 2019. Well, technically, Lord's last week was, but having concussed himself chasing a ball to the boundary in the sixth over of the game, that probably doesn't count as a fair crack.
Ben Stokes then chose to bowl first, on what England were soon to discover was one of the flatter Trent Bridge surfaces of recent memory (although that perception was aided in no small part by the number of missed chances in the first half of the match). One of the less-remarked-upon aspects of England's decision at the toss was that Leach, who averages 80 in the first innings of Tests, was going to be asked to perform another thankless task. Only one of these sides picked a specialist spinner, and the one that did wasn't about to do the guy any favours.
Still, Leach plugged away, doubtless not helped by his inability to train properly in the build-up due to concussion protocols. He saw catches put down off both Daryl Mitchell and Tom Blundell, New Zealand's two centurions, and finished with 2 for 140. Hard yards in the holding role, struggling to hold much at all.
Back to the New Zealand second innings. No great wear and tear to the deck, although Michael Bracewell, New Zealand's debutant allrounder got one or two to turn (Bracewell is 31 but only took his first first-class wicket in 2019). There's a little bit of rough outside the left-hander's off stump from the Pavilion End, where Leach has tended to operate, and it is into that patch that he loops the ball up to Conway.
Another fact to note: Leach's Test bowling average against left-hand batters is 52.29, compared to 28.43 when bowling to righties; New Zealand's top seven includes four left-hand batters.
Despite the departure of Tom Latham, bowled while leaving, there is no sense New Zealand are going to allow themselves to be tied down once Leach is introduced to the attack in the 16th over. Conway brings out the reverse-sweep in Leach's fifth over, the first of four that he will send rattling off the middle of the bat to the cover boundary; in Leach's seventh, Will Young, ostensibly the preferred target, twice sashays down to launch the ball over mid-on.
Conway looks increasingly at ease, another reverse for four bringing up his half-century. But Leach tosses one up again, perhaps a little higher and wide of off stump. There's just enough dip and bounce as Conway looks to sweep in orthodox fashion for the ball to take the top edge and sail gently towards Jonny Bairstow at deep square leg. After a century stand the pin has been pulled, triggering the first of a series of detonations in the New Zealand top order.
Leach ended his spell with figures of 11-2-53-1 - not the work of a defensive spinner, you'd say. But the data suggests Leach has been bowling both faster and shorter since his first came into Test cricket in 2018, rather than throwing it up and seeing what happens. Getting the right balance was something Foakes touched on afterwards.
"There seemed to be a bit of turn and bounce when it was slower, so it's just trying to get that pace right," he said. "I thought he did a good job and adapted well, and picked up a reward. It's just trying to make the most out of the wicket, it's obviously a nice wicket and fast-scoring ground and when a batter attacks you, and you're trying to also attack, it's a tricky balance. But once it was slightly slower it seemed to bite a bit more."
Later in the day, as New Zealand's slide towards jeopardy gathered pace, Leach thought he had struck again when turning one past Blundell's outside edge - but DRS chalked off the wicket. Bracewell then dented his figures with a couple of bludgeoned fours down the ground. The fact that Bracewell found greater degrees of drift and turn with the ball would probably have hurt more.
Leach is already an England cult hero, as attested by the fans at Trent Bridge wearing t-shirts printed with a wagon wheel of his 1 not out at Headingley. But if he is going to stay the course as England's No. 1 Test spinner, then it will be on the back of his bowling. Work to be done, but still time for "Nut" to crack it.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick