To go from being the spinner at the centre of a chucking controversy to missing out on a place in England’s Ashes squad on a split vote might be regarded as progress.
As Jack Leach flies out with the England Lions squad to Australia on Tuesday, he still has a pang of regret at being overlooked for the Ashes, but he has more than proved his worth if he ever has to answer that call.
Moeen Ali’s confirmation in the Queensland city of Townsville that he is fit to play in England’s final warm-up, having recovered from a minor side strain, seems to have removed the immediate possibility that Leach will be rushed into a fast car immediately upon his arrival at Brisbane airport.
But, in reserve, England know they have a left-arm spinner who has faced up to the biggest challenge of his life and come through stronger than ever.
A year ago, while preparing with England Lions at the national performance centre at Loughborough University, Leach was shocked to be told that his action exceeded the 15-degree tolerance on how much his arm was allowed to straighten.
Many privately feared that the news might break him, but Leach showed previously untapped levels of resilience and grew stronger as the county season progressed, finishing with 51 wickets at 25.78 as he became a central figure in Somerset’s successful survival fight.
For a few seconds, during the final match at Taunton where he teamed up with his fellow spinner Dom Bess to bowl Somerset to safety, Leach imagined that Ashes place was his as he saw the name of the national selector flash up on his phone.
“I had a call from James Whitaker on the evening before they were making Ashes calls so I saw him on the phone and I thought ‘I’m in’. I answered it and he was ringing to say ‘you were close, it was a close call, it was a split call amongst the selectors but just keep doing the right things and you are going to go away with the Lions.'”
It was then down to Angus Fraser, Middlesex’s director of cricket and another England selector, who put aside his disappointment at watching Leach send Middlesex down in Somerset’s place in the final round of the County Championship, to offer wise counsel when most needed.
“I spent some time with Gus on the Lions tour of in Sri Lanka earlier this year when I was obviously going through a bit of a tough time and he was brilliant with me,” Leach said. “He gave me another good chat and he said ‘it’s going it happen, it’s just a matter of time, just keep performing’.”
England had opted for Mason Crane, feeling that a legspinner might be more effective in Australian conditions, but to come so close was something Leach could not have imagined as the Championship season broke in mid-season for a month and more of Twenty20 cricket.
The last month of the season I really felt I got back mentally to what I know I can do,” Leach said. “It was that sort of mental hurdle that I needed to get through.
“It’s been a bit of a journey through the last 12 months. You probably try and kid yourself all along that you are feeling fine and doing great but, actually, looking back now, I needed to accept that it was going to take time to feel confident.
“It was only a small change I had to make to my action, but any change you make after you have been doing it for so long one way is still a big thing in your mind. So I needed to build my confidence with plenty of overs. It was inevitable it was going to take time.”
The support of the county circuit – there was not a single sly word from an opponent about him being a “chucker” – held him in good stead. However clean his action might be now, he is realistic enough to realise that international cricket might be a very different thing.
It was only against Lancashire in mid-September, when he took 9 for 141 in the match, that he felt back in the zone. “I started to feel like I had done in the past; I felt like I was in total control of what I was doing. Then in that last game against Middlesex I felt it was my best performance and I wasn’t thinking about it and it all happened how I wanted it to happen.”
There had also been six wickets against Warwickshire along the way, but as good as that was for his confidence, Leach grinned along when Bess, Somerset’s young offspinner, who is also on the Lions trip at the age of 20, concluded: “When Jack took the six-for at Warwickshire I thought I’d bowled the best I have ever bowled there and I only got one or two. I was thinking ‘what’s going on?'”
Leach knows that their partnership is invaluable and he summed it up in typically freewheeling style.
“When I was 20, I was at University getting pissed. I wasn’t anywhere near where Bess is now – to think where he could be in six or seven years’ time “
For the moment, though, Leach is the man in reserve and whereas a year ago a scientific test at Loughborough had brought only despair, this time he had something to celebrate.
“We’ve been measured this week on revs and he gives the ball a bigger rip than me,” Bess said.
“I suppose that’s good for bragging rights,” Leach reckoned, a cricketer enjoying his career again.