Match Analysis

Jack Leach takes the risks, earns the rewards in embodiment of England's new world

No point in judging spinner by his statistics, but his central importance to team is clear

Jack Leach claimed the key scalp of Mohammad Rizwan en route to a four-wicket haul  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Jack Leach claimed the key scalp of Mohammad Rizwan en route to a four-wicket haul  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

There is no question Jack Leach is a different bowler under Ben Stokes.
The left-arm spinner is a far more accomplished and braver bowler. Stokes as captain spent the summer reinforcing his confidence with praise and testing his mettle by refusing Leach's requests for boundary-saving fielders. He took the first ten-wicket haul of his Test career in the summer at Headingley against New Zealand, within that coming his first two five-wicket hauls on home soil.
The overall numbers, however, do not reflect the strides he has made this year. Under Stokes, Leach currently averages 40.17, higher than his overall of 33.75, and his 31.88 under previous skipper, Joe Root. Even after his successes in the first innings at Multan, his strike-rate under Stokes remains nine points higher than it was under Root.
Test cricket is the format that judges such stats more harshly than any other, but within the current England set-up - a team with such an absolute focus on winning that its bowlers are happy for their economy rates to go up so long as the opposition's wickets are going the same way - Leach's make for unusually misleading numbers. Even so, on day two in Multan, he finally got a haul that worked in his favour, figures of 4 for 98 in 27 overs that helped established a crucial first-innings lead of 79.
"Don't look at my stats," Leach said, when asked how to disconnect the thriving cricketer from the questionable statistics. "Do you know what, I've never felt this so much - as a team, we just want to win. And we'll do everything we can to do that.
"I really start to understand that we're going to take a few more risks to maybe take a wicket, and that might require going for a few more runs."
There is one piece of data, however, that underlines not just what Leach is doing well under Stokes, but the perseverance that he has required to do it. No spinner has taken a wicket immediately after getting hit for a boundary as many times as Leach. His dismissals of Saud Shakeel and Mohammad Rizwan on Saturday in Multan took him to 12 overall and four under Stokes alone. Moreover, they were Test wickets 100 and 101.
It might seem a little convenient to extrapolate character simply through tuning the dials on Statsguru. And it is, no doubt, though only because the real takeaway is how much thicker his skin has had to become. Leach's story is about plugging away in the face of adversity, whether through his battles with Crohn's disease and the assorted ailments he has picked up as a result, or the professional bumps he has experienced since his debut back in March 2018. Now, 30 caps on, that thick skin is almost a weapon in its own right, especially in the midst of England's new era.
On Friday evening, with Pakistan still trailing by 174 after closing on 107 for 2, England's attack reflected among themselves that they had been cut too often - and Leach himself had been a particular culprit, with a drag-down from the first ball of each of his first two new-ball overs. Returning on Saturday, they reiterated a plan to bowl straighter and force the batters to hit to areas that weren't their first choice, with men waiting in the deep, strategically placed three-quarters of the way to the fence.
Ironically, their key morning breakthrough was nothing to do with this plan. Ollie Robinson, with only his second ball of the match, ripped an inswinger through Babar Azam's defences to take out middle and off. That was the first of eight wickets to fall for just 60 runs, with Leach building on Robinson's momentum by taking the next three.
Saud Shakeel's loft down the ground was followed, one ball later, by a drag to midwicket that James Anderson caught brilliantly running back towards the boundary. Leach had tucked his length back a fraction to force the left-hander to reach a little more than he'd have liked. The dismissal of Mohammad Rizwan, however, was a touch of class mixed with a bit of anger, after Leach had been driven immaculately down the ground.
"It felt good coming out of the hand, definitely," Leach said of a delivery that pitched on leg and took middle. "He'd just hit me for four over the top so I maybe tried to put a little bit more on that one. And when he went back, I thought, that's good, I might have him in a bit of trouble." He did.
Mohammad Nawaz then chipped Leach to a gleeful Stokes at a catching mid-on, taking him to 103 wickets with plenty prospects of improving that figure before the Test is out.
There was plenty generosity of that type on offer from Pakistan's batters. But even so, from the drying-up of scoring opportunities to the subsequent clatter of wickets, it took a rare level of collective confidence to take such assured control of the game. And on a red-letter day for Leach, he was not only the main exponent, but for once the main beneficiary.
He is, in many ways, the surprise totem of the McCullum-Stokes era, if only because he's not outwardly the kind of cricketer you'd expect to fit in among this group. And no, it's not because of the glasses. For starters, being a finger-spinner is hardly the sexiest pursuit, especially in a group that rally against convention.
He has been the only bowler to play in every match under McCullum and Stokes - and that includes his concussion substitution in their very first match at Lord's, which might have been an excuse to look elsewhere, but proved to be quite the opposite. Similarly, when it looked like he might miss the first Test in Rawalpindi with illness, Stokes went and visited his room to convince him to pull through. Leach ended up taking the final wicket of a famous win and went on to thank Stokes for his insistence earlier in the week.
Their bond had existed long before their date with destiny at Headingley, but that day in 2019 took it to the next level. At the end-of-season PCA dinner, Leach bid £8,000 on a portrait of Ben Stokes from that innings against Australia, with the pair hugging like loons on stage when it was successful.
Independent of Stokes, he now commands a greater standing in the dressing-room, even if he was always a popular member of it. He's not the most vocal, but appears to have taken Moeen Ali's role as the king of the one-liner, breaking any tension with a wry comment here and there. After besting India comprehensively at Edgbaston, a fourth consecutive chase of the McCullum-Stokes era, Leach quipped to his skipper that "teams will be better than us, but they won't be braver than us". Stokes repeated the line in his post-match media engagements, with credit. It has since become a buzz phrase that the team has rolled out so often that Leach could have earned a central contract's worth of royalties had he copyrighted it.
He's bought into the batting side of things, too. Once the proud owner of the longest, most revered single since Meatloaf, he's expanded his horizons, with the switch hit now his weapon of choice. He was lamented by Somerset coaches for playing it in a Championship match earlier this year - it went for six - but he pulled it off again against South Africa at Emirates Old Trafford. Friday's attempt in Multan was, frankly, an abomination, but the willing to exist outside of his comfort zone is clear.
That extends to golf, an immensely popular pastime with both white- and red-ball teams - and cricketers full stop - but it's something that Leach has little time for. Every now and again he'll tag along, provided he can nab a free set of clubs from the course for the round. He is learning to embrace it, and is apparently eyeing up lessons in the new year.
Ironically, it was because of Leach that England were able to approach their second innings with a degree of old-world sensibility. Commitment to the new brand would have meant a thrash and a declaration to be back bowling again at Pakistan before the day was out.
Instead, there was a throwback to a more old-school third-innings canter: 89 for 3 after 25 overs at tea became 202 for 5 by stumps. No one struck in excess of a run a ball, Ben Duckett's 79 off 98 was a slow-burn show of aggression by his recent standards. Harry Brook (74 from 108) and Stokes (16 off 25) will no doubt flex their wares on Sunday to bump their current lead of 281 up beyond Pakistan's reach.
The key here is, unlike Rawalpindi, England do not necessarily need the hosts to play ball. There are three full days remaining and Duckett's dismissal - a ball from Abrar pitching back of a length and hitting as low as halfway up off stump - showed just how much the pitch has deteriorated already.
The requisite ten wickets for a second victory, and a series win achieved with a match to spare, should not be too hard to come by. Not for the first time this year, Leach will be front and centre of that.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo