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Thursday, March 04, 2021

Incredible story of Jack Leach: How the boy with nerdy glasses turned into a cult hero

From overcoming illness and facing setbacks to becoming a cult hero who helped England in its famous win in India, Jack Leach has come a long way.

Written by Sriram Veera | Mumbai |
Updated: February 11, 2021 8:04:51 am
jack leachA portrait of Jack Leach by his good friend Max Waller. (Somerset cricket/Twitter)

During the Chennai Test, Somerset cricket club’s marketing man Ben Warren ran a unique drawing contest that turned out to be very popular among the children. It centred around England spinner Jack Leach, who has become a bit of a cult hero among young fans after his incredible stonewalling knock of 1 in the last-wicket partnership of 73 runs with Ben Stokes in 2019 Ashes that sealed one of the greatest Test heist of all times.

With Warren promising to upload hand-drawn pictures of Leach on the club’s social media platforms every time the left-armer took a wicket at Chepauk, he received close to 150 entries. So for the past five days, the 28-year-old executive, in-charge of Somerset’s digital outreach, had been setting up a 3.45 am alarm at his home at Taunton in UK ready with the selected sketches of the man with the nerdy glasses, who his childhood friend Jos Buttler lovingly refers as Nut, a tribute to his hairless head.

From the time he became the unlikely hero who helped his team avoid the ultimate embarrassment against Ireland at Lord’s with a knock of 92 and his hand in the Ashes Test, Leach has been England cricket’s endearing story.

In the past Leach himself has in jest attributed his cult to ‘village-idiot look, the spectacles” and the unlikeliness of such a figure turning to a hero. Warren points out another facet. “It’s because he is the most decent bloke you will see and his resilience in bouncing back from multiple setbacks. The thing that stands out about Jack is how close he is to his local community here in Taunton. Despite his heroics for England, heis always involved in helping people from Taunton and is often found at local club ground Taunton Deane CC.”

While dealing with various health issues he took his cricketing ups and downs in his stride. Because of Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome, the 29-year-old is most vulnerable to infections. Last year he had Sepsis, an infection that made him fear for his life. He also had to remodel his action as his action was deemed illegal in internal tests run by England cricket board in 2016. Leach has gone from playing for England one year, to be without a county contract the next. He has even held job parking trolleys at a supermarket.

Somerset’s head coach Jason Kerr, who has been Leach’s mentor since the time he was barely 15, talks about his ward’s resilience. “Nothing has come easy in his life. Resilience is his strongest quality. If not for that he could have easily given up,” he says.

When Pant was counterattacking Leach in the first innings, Kerr was stiffening up at Taunton. “But I saw that Leach was holding his shape. He wasn’t bowling tripe; just that Pant was striking incredibly well. I was happy that Leach wasn’t panicking. Even then, one shot could have been caught at deep midwicket, right?”

That evening he decided against texting Leach. “It’s important not to make a big deal of it. Even if I had sent encouraging words, it would have come across as not quite right. I know him. He knows we have his back here at the club. He has always bounced back from adversities. Couple of his county team-mates texted him that evening.”

Leach would have made his Chennai debut in 2016 as a mid-series replacement but his action made the selectors rethink. It was at a regular internal test at the high performance center at Loughborough that the left-arm spinner’s action came under radar. Leach was on a holiday in Portugal when Andy Flower, the then director of cricket, called him to give the bad news. Shock and embarrassment hit him. “I didn’t want to be called a cheat,” he would go on to say.

Kerr couldn’t face his student. “It was heart-breaking to see him at that point, but I think it helped him. The new action allows him to give more revolutions on the ball and have a nice high arm action. As I said, nothing has come easy for him.”

The start to his county stint too wasn’t without hiccups. After a particularly hot day at the cricket, he fainted and bashed his head in the bathroom, resulting in two fractures and concussion. He would pick up wickets but lose his county spot to George Dockrell or Piyush Chawla, the 2013-14 overseas player. Later, his battle for a place in the team was with his county team-mate Dom Bess and in England with Moeen Ali or Adil Rashid.

Kerr worried for Leach’s life last year when he was hospitalised for sepsis on a tour of New Zealand. He had contracted gastroenteritis and because of his low immunity due to Crohn’s, it turned to sepsis. “He was in the hospital on drips and his family and I were seriously worried about him. He was very serious for hours and days actually,” Kerr says.

Leach too has spoken about those tough days in hospital abroad. Talking to PA news agency he said, “I remember thinking, ‘Don’t fall asleep because you might not wake up’. It was that serious in terms of how I was feeling. I didn’t know too much about it at the time, how serious it could be, but I remember feeling very, very ill.” Even after he came back home, the recovery took a long while.

Kerr switches to the happy memories soon. He was at the academy towards the end of the fourth day’s play in Chennai. “I missed that ball to Rohit Sharma live. I was at the indoor nets,” says Kerr, who was alerted by whoops of joyous cries that went around him. He rushed to the phone to catch the replays. “That would be up there with some of the other beauties he has bowled in county cricket.”

Kerr would have been moved to reach out for some better adjectives to describe the ball that got Cheteshwar Pujara on Day 5. Leach made one to break across rapidly from a leg stump line to take Pujara’s edge on the final day and that would trigger India’s collapse.

“He didn’t spin much as a teenager but always had the accuracy. He was tremendously eager to develop and we worked a lot on the ball and seam position in the hand. The release position. The drift. And the angles he could exploit at the crease.” The one to Pujara was released from wider of the crease, drifted in and forced Pujara to open his front leg to adapt but it spun sharply to startle him.

“The changes in the pitches at our county ground in 2016 helped him,” Kerr says. Somerset decided to go for tracks that aided turn to make full use of Leach and Bess. “It allowed Leach to bring all the attributes we worked on in play. He started to grow in confidence.”

Over a period of time, Kerr realised that Leach would overthink about his bowling. And he would convey this to the bowler and ask him to try a different approach. In a chat with Somerset County club’s digital arm, Leach talked about some of Kerr’s changes. “A day before a game I stopped bowling too much to batsmen. Instead, I would just focus on bowling to mitts placed on the ground.”

Once he started to do well on pitches that were spin-friendly, whispers went around the circuit that Leach was only good on those tracks. “Lot of nonsense,” Kerr bristles. “But it did feel great when Leach took a bucketful of wickets in two away games, against good batsmen, a couple of years ago. After that everyone shut up.”

All his life, the boy in glasses has made his doubters shut up and that is the reason for Warren’s flooded inbox. American writer Norman Rush makes an interesting observation about revolutionaries with spectacles that helps one understand the adoration that Leach enjoys. Rush writes: “I have a certain inordinate feeling toward revolutionaries who wear glasses, because there is the sense of how easily they could be unhorsed in the slightest physical confrontation with the enemy just by someone flicking their glasses to the ground and stepping on them. So you assume such people have unusual amounts of courage,”

From overcoming illness and facing setbacks to becoming a cult hero who helped England in its famous win in India, Leach has come a long way. The man who looks like a bank teller has handed India a warning – no freebies this time, try the next counter please.

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