Jack Leach says that county pitches are not sufficiently preparing players for international cricket, and that a preponderance of green seamers is holding England back at Test level.
The Somerset spinner has prospered in recent years at Taunton, one of the very few turning wickets in the County Championship, and believes that a greater variety of surfaces would provide a more useful test of skills.
Leach broke into the England setup in 2018 following a number of productive seasons at Somerset, but is aware that at other counties his chances would have been severely limited. With a large portion of the Championship played in spring, when conditions are cooler and tend to favour swing and seam bowling, spinners are relegated to bit-part roles for much of the year.
The England and Wales Cricket Board is aware of the problem, and from 2020 more four-day games will be scheduled in the summer months. But with turning surfaces more likely to fall foul of the ECB’s pitch inspectors than those enabling lavish seam movement, Leach believes a more fundamental shift is required.
Somerset have narrowly avoided points deductions in each of the last two seasons for preparing surfaces with “excessive turn”. The Taunton pitch was marked as “below average” for a game against Middlesex in September 2017, and again last September after a match against Lancashire finished within two days.
“How they mark pitches needs to be addressed,” Leach said. “We look at spinning pitches negatively, but if it’s seaming around, we’re not too bothered. We need to challenge people to be better at cricket rather than complain about pitches.”
County cricket is back in the spotlight following England’s current struggles in the Caribbean, where they are 2-0 down ahead of Saturday’s third and final Test in St Lucia. England’s evident discomfort facing the West Indies’ 90mph pace bowlers on a helpful surface can be partly attributed to the fact that such challenges are vanishingly rare in the Championship. And according to former England captain Nasser Hussain, the current dearth of quality top-order batsmen can also be traced back to the domestic game.
“There is a real problem in county cricket,” Hussain said. “There is no real depth of top-quality top-order batsmen. The red-ball game is being played predominantly in April and May, and then right at the end of the summer, on spicy pitches with a Dukes ball.
“If anything, people are hiding away from batting in the top three. Someone like Jason Roy, who some say is the next cab off the rank, bats at No5 for Surrey. Why would you want to move up to No3 in county cricket when it’s moving around? James Vince at Hampshire is slowly sliding down the order where it’s easier to bat.”
Leach wasn’t claiming to have any quick fixes. “I don’t know if it comes from the top or the counties,” he admitted. “But I think it’s a big thing. There’s very few times where you spend 150 overs in the field and it’s a batting paradise, then you’re looking to spin them out on the final day. As much as I think spinning pitches are important, I think playing on flat ones is too. We need players to experience different surfaces. That would strengthen our international teams in years to come.”
Leach’s more immediate challenge is to win back his spot in the Test team. Understandably but unjustly dropped after taking 18 wickets in three Tests in Sri Lanka, Leach has found himself carrying the drinks in the Caribbean, with Moeen Ali the first-choice spinner and Adil Rashid preferred as his complement in Barbados. And the 27-year-old admitted he had been expecting to play more on this tour.
“I came here last year on the [England Lions] tour and it ragged square, so I came here thinking I’d be more involved,” he said.
“With my role, I have to be patient and know when I am going to be involved or not. Then it’s about helping the guys and learning as much as I can, working on my game. I don’t feel I’ve wasted time. I feel like I’ve made improvements.”
There are certainly no qualms within the England camp that Leach could do a job if required. His four Tests to date have produced 20 wickets, and given an admittedly modest qualification of 1,000 balls, his bowling average of 24.9 currently makes him England’s best spinner since Jim Laker.
Of course, the fact that England have taken six decades to produce a spinner who can average under 25 says as much about the historical pedigree of English spin bowling than it does about the quietly impressive Leach.
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