Appreciate What You Have
The Ashes were lost already, the scoreline read 3-0, Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris were bowling better than any Aussie since Lillee and Graeme Swann retired from international cricket. Since this moment England have been desperately trying to find his replacement. Panesar was tried on boxing day and Scott Borthwick at the SCG; neither were any good. Moeen Ali was brought in as a part timer in 2014 and his magic deliveries disguised his dross and convinced everyone he was more than a batsmen who bowled a bit. After this theory was horrendously exposed in the 2016/17 tour to India and the 2017/18 Ashes England went for a pure spinner in Jack Leach who had at first middling returns bit is now a mainstay in the test side. Dom Bess was tried against Pakistan but failed because he was rushed in on the basis of nothing. Adil Rashid was used but his shoulder and natural ability with a white Kookaburra means he will almost certainly never play test cricket again. Look the list is long, the names bring back emotions of unease at the thought of them bowling for the three lions again or they fill you with hope for the future. The truth is England have been searching for Swann since his retirement but you cannot replace perfection overnight.
Swann was arguably England's greatest ever spinner and one of the finest the modern game has ever seen. Swann claimed 255 test match wickets and in the period in which he played (2008-2013) no other bowler in the world claimed more. Swann was the best in his field for a long time and such an important cog in England's well oiled winning machine under Andy Flower. Every good side has a containing spinner and every truly great side has 2 spinners in one and Swann was just this. The first innings of a test is mightily crucial. The game can slip away from a side in a session or a spell. Thus the importance of a world class spin bowler is amplified in this phase of the game more than any other. Having an elite spinner who can keep things tight allows good rotation of your quicks and for pressure to be sustained- something which England built their entire game plan on during the Flower reign. Swann was superb at this. In the 1st innings of a test match Swann went at just 3.03 an over and this rises to only 3.1 in the 2nd. Swann could keep an end down but more than this he could do it consistently. Then in the 2nd batting innings for each side Swann would come into his own. In the 3rd innings of a test Swann averaged 28.5 and this drops to 27.5 in the 4th but his economy rate in these phases is 2.98 and 2.74 respectively.
Swann was a superb off spinner for the large part of his career and this is reflected by the stats. Swann only averaged above 30 in 2 countries; Australia (51) and South Africa (31) and he averaged 28.9 in England. Spinners don’t have success in England but Graeme Swann did. England had a world class spinner on their hands and they got everything they could from him. But Swann didn’t appear overnight. Swann had been on England's radar for a long time, nearly debuting in 1999 against New Zealand and he remained in and around the side for most of the 2000s before his debut. Yet Swann was always playing cricket which oddly enough is the best way for a spinner to develop. Before his debut Swann had played 171 fc matches. By this point Swann had perfected his craft and was at the peak age for most sporting professionals. That Swann had such an emphatic start to his test career should have come as no surprise. Along a similar vein and much to the point of this post; that England's spinners have not replicated this success should come as no surprise.
England are still searching for their Swann replacement but when you boil it down England have found it.
When we look at England spinners post Swann then one name stands out from the rest. Jack Leach. Leach has played 16 tests and claimed 62 wickets at 30, Swann had 69 at 30.7. But as we know when it comes to a spinner average isn’t everything. So what about when we compare their respective economy rates? Well Swanns 1st innings 3.03 and 2nd innings 3.1 are met by Leach’s 3.1 and 3.09 respectively. In the latter half of the game Leach’s numbers appear somewhat of an oddity. In the 3rd innings of a test match Jack Leach goes at 3.5 runs an over whilst in the 4th Leach comes into his own going at 2.5 an over and averaging 18 with the ball. Jack Leach has all the right tools to be a world class spinner if he can improve his bowling to left handers then Leach can be one of the best in the world. Leach also possesses those certain unquantifiable qualities which we tend to throw about: “fight”, “grit”, “determination” you know the ones. Leach’s story is an inspiring one. From taking time out of the game to being shunned by England for years to eventually receiving his maiden cap and battling his way through. Leach has faced many personal battles which one would safely say have prepared him for whatever he may face once he crosses the white line.
Yet English cricket do not appreciate Leach and what he has given to the side. Leach has never let England down and has been a consistent performer for them. But the tendency of any sports fan to go looking for the character with whom they can latch onto has driven away our appreciation for Leach. Leach is not a character, he’s not the guy who will be cracking jokes and feel like the everyman, he’s not the guy to fire everyone up in the field or get the crowd rallied behind him nor is he the one to be bouncing around the field. Leach is quiet and contained; he remains in himself and does his job for the team. Swann wasn’t this, no Swann was a character he was everything that Leach isn’t and as a result of this England fans clung onto Swann and saw him as one of theirs. Swann was your mate from down the pub always smiling and joking; Leach is the neighbour who you never notice but once you get to know him he’s your best mate. Jack Leach is currently matching the numbers of England's best ever spinner but for some reason we just refuse to acknowledge it. Instead we begin this desperate search for a younger spinner one who is a bit more exciting a bit more out there out spoken a bit more of a joker a bit more... Swann. This complete failure to disregard what we have is agonising to watch as we see a truly class spinner slip through our fingers.
Of course there are certain limitations to Leach’s game. For starters his stats are slightly skewed as he has toured Sri Lanka twice and India once with all three tours producing bunsens. But the main takeaway from Leach is the fact that he cannot bat anywhere higher than number 9. Now this is a big issue for England who look to fit Archer Anderson and Broad into the same side but when you have all three of those and Leach the tail begins to look very very long. This is why Dom Bess played for such a large part of the summer as he offered this balance to the side as he allowed England to play their frontline bowling attack without fear of a collapse. Leach doesn’t offer this same stability and at some point you do have to ask yourself who offers more Jack Leach or one of Archer Broad and Anderson who would have to miss out for Chris Woakes. However after the winter gone by Leach has made himself England's first choice spinner and he is currently undroppable regardless of his batting. Lastly with Leach his well documented struggle against left handers is something that whilst an issue isn’t anything major and can only be fixed by him bowling to them more. For all the talk of the Pant onslaught and the damage it would do to Leach the benefit of such a vicious attack is 10 fold. So yes Leach has his flaws but he has shown time and time again he knows how to work on them and at the age of 29 he is entering his peak as a spinner and he will only get better.
Jack Leach is a strong man and even stronger cricketer. What he lacks in boisterous nature and on field antics he makes up for in his bowling. Leach is a silent operator who does what a good spinner does and then some and at 29 Leach has at least another 4 years of test cricket in front of him; we are only seeing the start of Jack Leach. Since Swann retired England have been chasing perfection but they have failed to stop and look at what they have. Jack Leach may never reach the dizzy heights of Graeme Swann but right here right now he's the best England have got and it's sad to think they may never realise it until he's gone.