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Match Analysis

Jack Leach, naked at the Gabba

Why did England pick a man they have usually handled so delicately to bowl at a spinners graveyard?

Jarrod Kimber
Jarrod Kimber
10-Dec-2021
Jack Leach was hit out of the attack by David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne on day two  •  Getty Images

Jack Leach was hit out of the attack by David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne on day two  •  Getty Images

"Don't fall asleep because you might not wake up." That's what Jack Leach was saying to himself in 2019. That was when he had sepsis in New Zealand. Leach also has Crohn's disease.
England have done everything they can to keep him fit and healthy. Giving him the very best treatment to ensure he can be ready when they need him.
When selected he's been an almost single-use entity on the field. Since that New Zealand tour, they've used him when and where he's suited. Leach averages 31.12 in Tests because England have waited for pitches that turn, or batters he has good match-ups against.
And then they turned up at the Gabba, a place where overseas spinners don't work, where there is little spin, a team of left-handers, and they chose him over Stuart Broad's 524 wickets.
There Leach got a different kind of treatment from the Australians, 1 for 102 from 13 overs.

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England analyst Nathan Leamon once said that we obsess too much over the selections of the ninth, tenth and eleventh best players in a team in cricket.
And he's right. So much of the cricket media and public's obsession is over the players who make the smallest impact. Part of that is quite simply because during a Test, a poor selection becomes a story for days, as we try to work out what would have happened with the road not travelled.
That happened here with the non-selection of Broad. England got into trouble in this Test because they were dismissed for 147. Broad has a Test century to his name, but it's doubtful he would have changed that score much.
He might have helped with the ball, with Chris Woakes starting poorly. Having Broad out there would have been a simple way to regain control. And as Brisbane's biggest newspaper will grudgingly admit, he's bowled well there over the years for 12 wickets at 24.5; even if half of those wickets were from one innings.
But what about the man they chose instead, Leach. For a team with so much off-field support, he would seem to be one of the most baffling choices to make for a touring side in Australia for quite some time.
"The Gabba has a weird kink - it actually gets tougher to take spin wickets the longer the match goes. Wickets fail at 51.1 in the first innings, but in the second that is 57.3"
Leach is a spinner who needs a lot of assistance off the surface. That's common, but he goes from everyday friendly finger spinner to Thanos on a ragging wicket. The best way to tell this is that Leach averages 21.49 at Taunton. In the rest of the UK it's 32.68. This is also backed up by his average of 27.32 in Asia. And in five Tests at home, he averages 20 overs a match. That's incredibly low for a frontline spinner.
So what kind of help does the Gabba give spin bowlers in the last five years? Seam is averaging around 27 compared to spin's 53. Lyon is averaging 45.50 here in that time. In the last 41 years, the Gabba has one five-wicket haul to a tourist, John Emburey's 5-80. Only Daniel Vettori has more than seven wickets in total there. This is the opposite of what Leach needs.
The Gabba has a weird kink too. It actually gets tougher to take spin wickets the longer the match goes. Wickets fail at 51.1 in the first innings, but in the second that is 57.3. As most tweakers prefer the second innings, this isn't ideal. But it's terrible for someone like Leach, who massively depends on the surface falling apart. In the first match innings he averages 48.82; in the second that drops to 20.95.
Then there are the Australian batters, of which four of the top seven, and six of the eleven are left-handed. Leach - like most left-arm orthodox bowlers - is terrible against southpaws. Against right-handers, he averages 24.7, and against lefties that's 61.5. The problem for Leach is that Smith and Labuschagne average over 40 against left-arm orthodox in the last five years (for Smith, that's a weakness of sorts). Really only Pat Cummins - who is a poor player of spin generally - is weak against it. That's not a lot of potential victims for Leach.
Not that it matters that much, but Broad has averaged 25.2 against left-handers in the last five years. As you may have heard, he's been pretty good to David Warner as well.
Australia were always going to target Leach, because Ben Stokes was under a fitness cloud, and this was a weaker bowling attack without James Anderson and Jofra Archer. Leach doesn't have a lot of weapons when someone attacks him on a flat pitch. If it's a left-hander, without footmarks, he's naked.
Only 25 overseas spinners have more than 20 wickets in Australia. Five of those have played a Test this millennium. Only Geoff Miller of the England spinners has an average under 30 with more than 20 wickets. Panesar doesn't even qualify (13 wickets at 48.92). Swann has 22 at over 50.
The problem for most spinners is that generally side spin is more important around the world. In Australia, side spin is helpful, but overspin needs to be with it. The bounce. Most spinners could work this out, but they'd have to bowl in Australia over a couple of series to perfect it. They often get smashed in their first one and are shelved afterwards.
Your best chance of taking wickets in Australia is if you are tall, or can master overspin. Weirdly England have a tweaker like this in their group, Dom Bess. He actually profiles like an Australian offspinner, for all his problems with landing the ball where he wants it. And he would have been handy against a team of left-handers. Bess is in Brisbane at the moment; he just took 4-80 against Australia A.

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Australia attacked Leach almost twice as much as any other frontline bowler.
Leach has bowled 95.5% of his career pro deliveries with the red ball. He has 17 List A games and two T20s for 36 combined wickets. He has no white-ball experience. England have protected him from these kinds of situations, and now here he is, in an Ashes Test, being destroyed.
Warner hit him for two big sixes. Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne basically scored at two runs a ball against him. His wicket came from some good bounce but mostly because Labuschagne was showing him the same amount of respect he would a fourth-change club bowler.
Fans and the media suggested Leach bowled too flat, tossed up, aggressive, and straight. The truth is, he bowled too much.
Moeen Ali probably should have been England's spinner here if he was still playing. Bess would have been a decent back-up with so many left-handers on display.
England's treatment of Leach's health has been admirable. They used to select him when everything was in his favour which helped him. If there was any problem with this, it was that they never let him develop other skills by using him only when it suited. Or let him play that much at all. In 2020 he didn't get a Test. This year he didn't play during the home summer. Hard to go from targeting a team of right-handers on ragging Indian wickets to a team of lefties on a spinner's graveyard with no Tests in between.
England are known to be meticulous with their planning for major series and tournaments. And then they turned up at the Gabba with a bowler absolutely not suited to the job in so many obvious ways.
On the third day, England gave him the ball when they had run out of options. Of course, that is part of why he was in the team in the first place.
Australia went after Jack Leach, but England's treatment was worse.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber