HOW could you not love Jack Leach?
This is a man who casually cleans his glasses between facing deliveries in the simmering cauldron of an Ashes Test.
This is a man who accompanied Ben Stokes into the history books at Headingley last summer with an unbeaten one from 17 balls – and then, long after the astonished spectators had left, re-enacted his single to square-leg in footage that went viral on social media.
This is a man who attributes his cult hero status to the fact that “I’m bald and have got glasses”.
This is a man who looks like the proverbial bank clerk who went to war.
All well and good.
Everybody loves Jack Leach.
But the key question is this: Is Leach the best spin bowler that England have got, or just a loveable everyman who can hold up his end with the bat – or, as he proved in scoring 92 against Ireland last summer, something a little bit more than that?
As shown by events in the first Test in New Zealand, where he returned figures of 47-7-153-2 as the hosts amassed 615-9 declared in Mount Maunganui, the jury is out on this central point.
At face value, Leach’s bowling statistics are perfectly respectable.
He averaged 26 going into the series with 32 wickets from nine Tests.
There have been a couple of four-wicket hauls and a five-fer thrown in, and you don’t take close-on 300 first-class wickets at 25 if you cannot bowl – even if you do ply your trade at Taunton, where the odd ball has been known to deviate from time to time.
Leach is a fine bowler and perhaps at or around his peak at the age of 28.
But as New Zealand racked up their highest-ever score against England, who ended day four on 55-3, 207 behind and in all sorts of bother, he provided neither control nor penetration to exemplify England’s bowling collectively in overseas Tests.
After Jeet Raval kindly presented him with his first wicket, slogging to mid-wicket on the second day, Leach made no impact against batting pillars BJ Watling (205) and Mitchell Santner (126) before claiming the consolation scalp of tailender Tim Southee, who obligingly patted back a simple return.
Moreover, he leaked runs to the tune of 3.25 per over, and although that economy rate wasn’t as high as Sam Curran’s or Joe Root’s, it was Root’s part-time off-spin that looked the more threatening at times. Leach’s performance was rendered even more limp by Santner’s three-wicket burst late in the day, with openers Dominic Sibley and Rory Burns handing him two of his wickets and nightwatchman Leach himself failing to review a catch to short-leg when the ball missed the bat.
Going on statistics, Santner shouldn’t worry a Test match batting line-up worth its salt; he had 34 wickets from 18 matches going into the series at just under 40.
But after striking his maiden Test century, and celebrating in commendably understated fashion (none of the egotistical, vomit-inducing antics of such as David Warner), Santner extracted more turn and bounce than Leach, whose own left-arm spin looked decidedly limited.
And although this particular bank clerk has plenty of credit in the bank after what happened last summer, he is in the side for his bowling, not for his batting.
Leach may “come good”, as the saying goes, in the second Test at Hamilton, starting on Thursday night UK time, but his travails showed up England’s troubles in overseas Tests.
They are conceding 600-plus totals abroad too often for comfort; give them a flat pitch and a Kookaburra ball and they are about as useful as Father Christmas and his reindeer at Easter. As this series is not part of the infernal World Test Championship, that most egregious of concepts, surely England should take the chance to look at Matt Parkinson, the Lancashire leg-spinner, for the next match.
Wrist-spin is much more likely to provide England with the sort of penetration they require on foreign wickets, the sort that will be needed as they work towards their “Holy Grail” of reclaiming the Ashes in 2021-22.
Saqib Mahmood, the young Lancashire quick bowler, is also worth a look.
Neither man could have done any worse.