Jack Leach growth under Ben Stokes means 'bad memories' of Hamilton are a world away
England spinner feared for his life after contracting sepsis on tour three years ago but returns in much happier place
Hamilton is hardly a city known for its vibes, least of all on a Tuesday after the Waitangi Bank Holiday. But the Novotel Hotel situated just off the main strip is its own little hub of activity, threatening to make enough noise to stir this sleepy town, if only for this week in February.
It is here where both the England men's Test side and a New Zealand XI will be based for the next few days. The teams will square off for a warm-up match up the road at Seddon Park that has already been cut in half, the tourists having decided to keep the more useful first two days under lights ahead of the day-night Test in Mount Maunganui. Friday and Saturday will be left to some fine-tuning, though who knows, one of those days could be substituted for time on the golf course.
The last 10 days have been more about irons and tees rather than leather and willow for England, absolutely in keeping with touring under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes. A quick hit around in Auckland, followed by a week in Queenstown and another dalliance at the start of this week - including Tuesday, which had originally been mooted for nets - have, with the help of a few evening excursions, quickly recalibrated the group onto their highly successful freewheeling wavelength. If there wasn't a pink Kookaburra ball to reacquaint themselves with, England would probably be game to start the two-match series tomorrow. By all accounts, the enthusiasm and belief of this team is as strong as ever. Nine wins out of 10 will do that to you.
Interestingly enough, alignment is a lot better on the field than off it. As Jack Leach spoke on Tuesday afternoon, he had no qualms dipping into a bit of heresy: "I hate golf. But the other lads love it. I've played a couple of rounds and then I sort of gave up and became more of a caddie."
There is comfort in those words, evidence of a player who has never been more settled in the national set-up, at ease enough with his acquired status as Stokes' trusted spinner to lay into his skipper's favourite pastime. Not for the first time, he spoke about feeling a sense of belonging he had struggled to find in the past.
To be having this conversation in New Zealand feels all the more relevant. It is almost four years since a Test debut in Christchurch. Pride was replaced by pain some 18 months later when he was in his room in this same Hamilton Novotel fearing for his life. A bout of sepsis brought on by food poisoning that knocked him more than most on account of the immunosuppressants he takes once a week to manage his Crohn's disease left him fearful of falling asleep in case he did not wake.
"When I came back to this hotel I was like, 'ah, bad memories'," he said. Having played the first Test of that 2019-20 series, he was ruled out of the second and spent day one holed up in his room while the team doctor was at the ground. It was only when the doctor returned that Leach was taken to the emergency room where he had a drip in one arm and a stream antibiotics in the other. He was discharged after 48 hours but the effects were still felt on the following tour of South Africa which he left early after being felled by another bug.
Here and now, he regards himself as a different person, physically and mentally. The numbers bear that out to some degree: 32 Test caps, 110 victims at 34.25 and 400 at 28.24 in all first-class cricket. But Leach also wonders if the link between a healthier balance across the board, particularly when it comes to managing Crohn's, has something to do with the brand of cricket Stokes and McCullum have imprinted upon him.
"It [Crohn's] can be stress related. So maybe being a little bit more relaxed is actually helping that side of my health as well? Fingers crossed it stays that way.
"I know at some point someone might come along who's better and take my place, and that will be absolutely fair enough. I'm just trying to enjoy it as much as I can and do as much as I can for the team.
"I think I view things slightly differently, just how fun it is winning games. I want to contribute to winning games."
He concedes there is usually trepidation when looking at what lies ahead in tours and especially years such as this with an Ashes series on the horizon. But his game is in an altogether better place, characterised by finishing 2022 with 46 wickets. Only Kagiso Rabada and Nathan Lyon were ahead of him, both with 47.
The number accompanying that 46 - an average of 38.28 - jars. Though not as much as it usually would.
"I would never think an 38 average would mean 46 wickets, I thought it would mean 20 wickets, 2.5 an over and not looking like taking a wicket.
"I still look at that and think 'I'd love that to be 31, 32', but I know the only way I can do that is by bowling better, not safer. I need to be braver. That was a nice reflection at the end of the year. The message in the dressing room is 'whatever they get, we'll get'. It's probably subtly asking more of people, it's just really fun to be part of."
It almost seems too on the nose - championing the healing, soul-cleansing power of Bazball. And yet Leach is both the best example of a player being lifted to a different level and not taking it as seriously. Empowered and at ease, and like this group, ready to ensure 2022 was the norm rather than a happy anomaly.
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo