At what point in the ledger of brutal, sapping days, of boundary-fumbling jeers and spiralling numbers, does a tour from hell tick over into something more human and manageable: a tour from limbo or purgatory, from the uneasy netherworld of the merely very bad?
English spinners have tended to die the most public of sporting deaths in Australia. Take the long view and the realistic goal for these brave, lost boys, these gadabouts in Napoleonic uniforms marching in single file across the flatlands, is to avoid being the worst guy, the one with the quiz question numbers, the English spin bowler who gets to define this four-yearly horror.
On day four of the Sydney Test, as England resisted – gassed and wobbling, but hanging on all the same – Jack Leach finally caught a break. And Leach has probably found that moment of grace now, or just enough to have something of his own alongside the bruises and buffetings.
In Sydney Leach took four for 84 in Australia’s second innings, despite never really offering any sense of control. In his first spell he had Australia’s batsmen in two minds, unsure whether to cut him or drive him as he bowled too short or too full. But he did also have one wonderful moment, the kind of moment he will treasure and tend to, and place in a jar over the mantelpiece.
Coming back just after lunch, with Australia on 83 for three, Leach had figures of 6-0-28-1. A little earlier, after Leach had lured Marcus Harris into a loose drive, Steve Smith had come dandying out of his crease and launched Leach in a wonderful cinematic arc over mid-off, the brand of shot that reminds us what a wonderful mover, athlete and basic cricketing specimen Smith is, besides the numbers and the twitches and the chirrups.
Smith was on 22 off 26 by now and cruising. There was a brief delay as Haseeb Hameed, who always seems to be tumbling out of the door with his school tie askew clutching a piece of toast, fiddled his way into a pair of shin-pads.
Leach’s fifth ball was a skiddy arm ball. Smith played that weird lean-back push, the shot of a man resplendent at the prow of his yacht, missed the ball and saw it splay his stumps. For Leach, face a little puce, there was was an edge of bottled rage in the celebrations. Understandably so. How long have you got?
The ballad of Jack Leach is a fascinating tale. He isn’t exactly a victim – Leach has his first central contract now of an up-and-down career – more a leaf blown along the road, tossed in the to-and-fro conflicting winds, manfully clinging to his path. He took 28 wickets in six Tests in Galle, Ahmedabad and Chennai in spring and was then dropped for the entire summer.
This is the level of deep thought in England’s brains trust. We’re going to play this bloke in the Ashes. Let’s leave him out for nine months.
Instead Leach bowled 29 championship overs between the 25 April and 11 July, then didn’t bowl again until the end of August, then didn’t bowl between 22 September and just before lunch at the Gabba, when his captain decided this was the ideal moment to shove him down the mountain and see if he was ready for the black run.
He hasn’t bowled well in Australia. There will be criticism of the defensive fields at the SCG, but the fact is Leach kept pitching short and the ball kept being pounded out to the man on the fence. In three Tests he has six wickets at 53.5 and has gone at 4.3 runs an over.
How bad is this? Well, here’s the thing: it’s pretty standard. Four years ago Moeen Ali and Mason Crane took six wickets at 128 between them. Four years before that Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar took 10 at 81.7. Four years before that Panesar and Ashley Giles took 13 at 49. All bled runs. Even in the great outlier, 2010-11, Swann’s 15 wickets came at 39.8. What he did so well was offer control, going at 2.72 runs an over and playing a key role in the win at Adelaide.
So what, really, did we expect now? The real story of Leach’s tour has been the same as everyone else’s. He needs runs, pressure leverage, games that go into the last two days. A spin bowler with no backup, no platform is basically someone bowling slowly and hoping for the best.
There were some other good things on the fourth day for England. Ollie Pope’s wicketkeeping was lithe and limber. There was even something refreshing in the sound of his eager, piping chat, a pleasant change from the silent sadness of Jos Buttler, who crouches for every ball with the look of a laudanum-addled poet splayed in his garret composing his latest ode to death.
And there was Leach’s final hurrah, two wickets in the slog that leave him on a hat-trick the next time he plays. When will that be? Dom Bess will perhaps get a game in Hobart. And there would be something very Jack, very much the leaf tumbling down that windswept path, were Leach never to play again, but end his career suspended on a hat-trick.
More likely that moment might have to wait until the English summer, when the home crowd can gild it with some well-deserved underdog affection.