Five Tests and 20 wickets at an average of 26.20 should be considered too small a sample size to anoint someone as a saviour. But after the Edgbaston debacle, England are on the lookout for one – anyone, who will slay the beast who fidgets, Steve Smith – at Lord’s.
Innings of 144 and 142, both when Australia was under pressure, coupled with the stranglehold Smith has had on England in Ashes past, has intensified the search for an antidote.
Bowling finger spin in England is often a thankless job, and that should put Jack Leach’s lack of pedigree in perspective. But so traumatised and out of answers is the English think tank when it comes to Smith that they are willing to punt on any plan to get one back on their tormentor.
Leach’s most recent contribution for England was an invaluable innings of 92 in the four-day Test against Ireland at the Home of Cricket three weeks ago, but even though that helped the World Cup winners avoid embarrassment, the left-armer still found himself out of the squad for the first Ashes Test as the predominantly swing-and-seam-friendly conditions allowed Leach only three overs, which went for almost nine runs an over. A return to the hallowed turf for the Somerset man may bring back good memories, but they will not be about his bowling.
A journeyman pro
The reason why the 28-year-old Leach has played only five Tests till date is that the England selectors are not yet convinced about what he brings at the highest level. A first-class record of 270 wickets in 81 matches at 25.29 over seven seasons also doesn’t jump up at the reader. He made his debut in New Zealand in early 2018 when the wise men were looking for spin options after Moeen Ali’s horror Ashes tour, ironically the scenario again this time.
Returns of 0/52 and 2/61 in Christchurch suggest Leach didn’t exactly make the most of his opportunity. The best that can be said about him is that he tied up an end and conceded less than three runs an over in both innings. He saw no action during the home series against Pakistan and India later that year.
He came back for the winter tour to Sri Lanka, where the nature of the pitches on offer dictated that Leach be part of a three-pronged spin attack alongside Moeen and Adil Rashid.
The left-arm tweaker came back with 18 wickets at 21.38 from the 3-0 sweep in the Emerald Island, all but two of his overall Test scalps till date coming in that series. He bowled England to victory with rich hauls in the fourth innings of every Test. But despite being – statistically, at least – the best of the troika in Sri Lanka, he was found surplus to requirements in the West Indies before reappearing when several first-choice players skipped the Ireland match after the successful World Cup campaign.
Probably, the spin-friendly conditions in Sri Lanka and the hosts’ not-too-strong batting prompted Ed Smith & Co. to take a judgment call.
Can he be Smith’s kryptonite?
A batting average of nearly 63 over 65 Tests attest to the fact that Smith has very few chinks in his armour, if any. And to think that he started his career in 2010 as a leg-spinner and batted at No. 8. All his 25 hundreds have come over the last six years, one of which he spent in suspension.
But if one can nit-pick, the one possible weakness that can be unearthed in against left-arm spin, which is where Leach come into the picture.
While the former Aussie skipper has been imperious against pace over the last few years, the team has often come a cropper in subcontinental outposts like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Smith’s average against quality orthodox left-arm spin, since January 2016, is a mere 23.14. Shakib Al Hasan and Taijul Islam had his number in 2017, and Rangana Herath dismissed him five times in six innings a year earlier.
And even though Smith scored a mountain of runs in India in early 2017, it was Ravindra Jadeja who gave him the most trouble, getting him out three times out of seven completed innings. Keshav Maharaj (and even Dean Elgar) got the better of him more than once on that ill-fated tour of South Africa last year.
On most occasions, the natural variation of a left-arm spinner – some balls turning away from the right-hander, and some coming in with the arm without any discernible change in the action – has been Smith’ downfall as he is beaten on both edges of the bat. Also, bowlers who are quicker in the air gave him problems as he misreads length once in a while, going back when he should be forward.
Smith going for the cut when the ball is too close to him for the shot, getting castled or feathering a thin edge to the wicketkeeper, weren’t uncommon sights in the subcontinent.
If one sees a trend in these dismissals, one must remember that most of them came on spin-friendly subcontinental tracks, where the ball that doesn’t turn often becomes almost more dangerous than the one that does. Jadeja and Herath have made a living out of such scalps. And, more importantly, Leach hasn’t shown anything yet that puts him in that class.
And the determination, focus and discipline Smith showed at Edgbaston can only be an ominous sign for England.
A dearth of options
His exploits in Sri Lanka show that Leach can do a job if conditions are in his favour. But unless one has the quality of Graeme Swann or Nathan Lyon, the Ashes are frequently decided by pace bowlers, more so at Lord’s where the last few Tests have had them drooling. Remember the pitch and overhead conditions against India last year, when James Anderson swung the visitors out in two sessions for a little over 100?
It needs a special spinner to thrive in such an environment and if Leach was one, he would have played more for England at home instead of Moeen who, to give him his due, had more Test wickets than anyone over the last 12 months (48 in 10 matches).
But when Lyon outclassed him on the Edgbaston turner, almost to the point of embarrassment, bowling Australia to victory on the final day with figures of 6-49, it forced the selectors’ hand, especially as the off-spinner was hardly scoring a run either.
So they went for a player who turned out for Taunton Deane Cricket Club against North Perrott in the West of England League, while Smith was reeling off his two hundreds. It would be quite an experience for him to return to Lord’s after just over a fortnight, but it doesn’t say much for his pedigree and the options at England’s disposal.
What skipper Joe Root can, however, expect from Leach is to hold an end up if Smith, or the other Aussie batsmen, stitch a partnership, as accuracy and economy seem to be his strengths. But going by recent history, patience has never been in short supply for Smith, who forces opposition captains to go for Plan B, C, D, and so on.
“I feel like I have nothing to lose and a lot to gain. I’m going in with the attitude that I will do what I do, try to do it really well and see where that takes me,” the spinner said. “There has been a focus on his supposed weakness against left-arm spin. I suppose those stats are there, but I just have to do my thing.”
Australia head coach Justin Langer, for one, isn’t too worried about the next trick up England’s sleeve. “No, I don’t buy into it,” the former opener said when asked whether Smith has a problem against left-arm spin. “He has got this incredible ability to solve problems.”
The desperation in the move is reflected in the fact that England has gone for Leach despite Australia having four left-handers in their top six who, in theory, should have an easier time against a left-arm tweaker.
It shows that England think tank is not thinking beyond Smith when it comes to the Aussie batting. They have put all their eggs in one basket. It remains to be seen whether that will be the destination of this plan after the Lord’s game.
But the hosts don’t seem to have much confidence in their new tactic against the Aussie run machine. As Leach put it: “Yes, there’s Steve Smith but there’s 10 other guys as well.”