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Match Analysis

Jack Leach sheds one-hit wonder status with another five-star showing

Spinner outdoes previous Headingley cameo to claim maiden Test ten-wicket haul

The trouble with being known for one thing above everything else is invariably, when people come across you, it's all they want to talk about.
Actors speak openly of frustrating periods in their lives when one role stuck with them a little too long. Christopher Mintz-Plasse once joked about asking his friends to start calling him McLovin because everyone else did. Bands often grow to resent their biggest songs, which might explain why the New Radicals last gig was in 2001, before Joe Biden brought them back 20 years later for his big inauguration do. And yeah, of course they played that song
For Jack Leach, the occasion of his 25th Test was a first return to the Leeds stage where he nailed the role that granted him cult status. That 1 not out alongside Ben Stokes against Australia here still ranks as the most celebrated single since Dua Lipa's "One Kiss", and probably just about shades it for airtime given how often it's brought up. Along with shouts of "Leachy where are your glasses?!" and "Leachy - clean your glasses!", which, to be fair, he handles with typical good grace, obliging every selfie and even the odd request to recreate the scamper after that nudge into the leg side off Pat Cummins.
None of that will ever go away, and deep down he'd hate if it did. But the next time someone mentions "Headingley", they'll have to specify the year. Maybe even the innings, after his first effort of 5 for 100 was bettered with a second of 5 for 66. From no five-wicket hauls at home to two across four days. And now a maiden 10-wicket haul in a match that England are now in control of, needing just 113 of their 296 target on the final day, with eight wickets spare, to confirm a 3-0 victory over New Zealand in a series that feels seminal. Not bad considering this was his first home series since the end of that 2019 Ashes.
"We need to get a win tomorrow, and then it will be very special," answered Leach when asked if he's got a new favourite memory at this ground. "So at the moment - no."
With 83 wickets at an average of 33.47 coming into this third Test with New Zealand, the tide was already turning. This was a 31-year-old left arm spinner, not some cuddly everyman nerd, who had won games for his country even if he has not been wholly settled. And quite apart from the obvious love and affection towards him - every fielder queued up to hug him when he sent an arm ball through Trent Boult to close New Zealand's second innings on 326 - there felt a profound difference to the Leach we were watching out there. He didn't just believe he deserved to be out there - he knew.
This is probably a good sign to talk about "belonging" because we all yearn to be loved and carry a sense of purpose. And though Leach was not lacking in either, the last few weeks it is clear he has been treated differently and, in turn, blossomed.
We can probably say it began when he concussed himself on the boundary at Lord's, ruled out of the match and then being replaced by legspinner and people's champion Matt Parkinson. Then came word that Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid were eyeing up another once-round on Brendon McCullum's party bus, and at another time he might have been lamenting a time in the not-too-distant future where he was nudged out of the circle for being too square. A solid if unspectacular tour to West Indies after an awkward time in the Ashes had fuelled talk of uncertainty over his place in the XI, and indeed as the No. 1 spinner.
But despite only being signed off as fully recovered from his head injury a day before the Trent Bridge Test, he was backed with a spot and 59 overs across both innings, returning a handful of wickets. There were another 70.5 overs here, but more telling as a show of confidence was how early he was called upon: 12 overs into day one (he removed Will Young with his first ball), then opening the second innings on day three. It meant by the time he stepped up at the Football Stand End for his spell after lunch on Sunday, Leach was his best self.
Across the 56 deliveries sent down, he wedded great control (46 dot balls) with a constant threat to both edges of the bat. He was consistently into the rough, which was that little bit rougher outside the right-handers' off stump thanks to New Zealand's left-arm duo of Trent Boult and Neil Wagner, which is where he caused the most trouble.
A couple of chances went begging at slip, but there was never a doubt further opportunities would come. The overall tally of 4 for 28 in this little period was as dominating as it sounds, particularly in tandem with find of the summer, Matthew Potts. Sure, they were lower order wickets, with six of his overall 10 coming in at No. 8 or lower, but England have long struggled to finish teams off and it would require some wilful naivety to ignore the fact Leach was regarded as a key man in every phase of England's time in the field.
McCullum's work as head coach plays a part, but even he admits he is merely amplifying the messages of his captain. It was particularly instructive at stumps to hear the working relationship Leach has with Stokes: "I say what about mid-on back and he goes, 'nope!' I don't know, he's got this knack of making me want to do stuff for him."
He went on to laud Stokes' confidence in both the decisions he makes and those he asks to carry them out. "I've never experienced anything like it," beamed Leach.
"I think I felt like I was bowling more attacking," he said of innings-turning spell. "I felt I needed to put more on the ball and find the right pace and the right length, and you have to be really precise with the field, so attacking and that for me was a really good thing.
"That third innings when they're in the lead, it would have been easy to drop guys out and make it a little bit easier for them [but] Stokes is going the opposite way which is brilliant"
Jack Leach
"In the past I might have felt I need a bit of protection to bowl attackingly and that worked really nicely. The way we're going about things, which is credit to Stokesy and Baz, is always taking the positive option. That third innings when they're in the lead, it would have been easy to drop guys out and make it a little bit easier for them [but] Stokes is going out the opposite way which is brilliant, and it gives me a new mindset which is trying to take wickets, working towards modes of dismissal, a bit more precise and specific with what I want to do rather than just bowling it."
Evidently the support act of 2019 has flipped three years on. Stokes is all of comforter, devil on the shoulder and ego manifest for Leach. Those nuggets of man-management, however, are coming off because of the graft Leach has put in. He has worked with Jeetan Patel on getting more overspin on the ball, developed subtle angle changes at the crease and increased pace to mix up drift through the air and reaction off the pitch. And the mantra that the hardest workers get the most luck was clear when a freak dismissal on day one when Henry Nicholls drove Leach to Alex Lees at mid-off, via a huge deflection of Daryl Mitchell's bat, was followed by a comical sight on day four when Wagner was caught between the knees of Covid substitute wicketkeeper Sam Billings.
After the battles with Crohn's disease, a dangerous bout of sepsis in New Zealand at the start of 2020 and then into a pandemic where his "at risk" status curbed life and cricket, the temptation is to say he might have wondered if he'd ever get to experience a week of such high, or be so integral to a team on the rise.
But Leach's spirit and unshakeable steel comes from believing he was good enough for Test cricket and able to contribute match-winning performances in all conditions, home and away, no matter the match situation. Now, four years after his debut, with 92 wickets, an average of 31 and one in the "ten-for" column, he knows.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo