Given his health ordeals in New Zealand and South Africa this winter, the inclusion of Jack Leach in England’s plans for their return to Test cricket against West Indies next month might initially have come across as something of a risk.
This is, after all, a player who admitted fearing for his life when he contracted sepsis in Hamilton in November, and then fell so ill during England’s early weeks in South Africa that he still wonders whether he and his team-mates were early victims of the Covid-19 pandemic, before the global severity was known.
“I guess we’ll never know,” Leach told reporters via videolink from England’s camp at the Ageas Bowl. “If you had those symptoms I had in South Africa now, you’d say this is definitely coronavirus. But I feel healthy and fit, and I want to stay that way as much as possible.”
But in the current circumstances, with the UK bracing for a second wave of Covid-19 cases following the government’s lifting of lockdown restrictions, the logic of Leach’s inclusion suddenly makes more sense.
After all, there can be few places in the country safer than England’s bio-secure training camp at the Ageas Bowl, especially for a man who has suffered since the age of 14 from Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition that can require immunosuppressant medication to keep it under control.
“It’s definitely more strict here than Bournemouth beach,” said Leach, after a week of soaring temperatures resulted in more than half a million sun-seekers descending on the Dorset coast. “It’s exactly that, a bubble, with social distancing and masks. We’ve been spending lots of time in our rooms but we started training [on Thursday] which was great, getting back out there and keeping our distance.
“There’s nothing I can do about what happened in the winter,” he added. “It’s just the way it is, but I’m quite lucky my Crohn’s is under control. There are people who suffer a lot worse than me. I don’t feel sorry for myself, I want to play as much cricket as possible and stay fit and healthy.”
The government’s initial advice had been for “extremely clinically vulnerable” people to shield at least until the end of June, a categorisation that had raised some doubts about Leach’s involvement in the series. However, rather than dwell on the nature of his illnesses in New Zealand and South Africa, Leach said that he and his consultants actually took comfort in the full extent of his recovery.
“The medication that I’m on puts me a little bit of a higher risk, but actually what I came through in the winter suggests that I can fight things off quite well,” Leach said. “The fact that I am fit, and reasonably healthy apart from that, gives me a good chance as well.
“I’ve been doing everything I need to do to stick by the rules, as has everyone else around me, but I’m not too nervous. I feel safe here in a bio-secure environment.”
The ECB last week announced a clean bill of health for both England’s camp at the Ageas Bowl and West Indies’ at Emirates Old Trafford, with a total of 703 Covid tests among players, management, hotel staff and other key workers coming back as negative. And though the squad will continue to train in two groups of 15 for the time being, with little interaction even at mealtimes, those results mark another crucial step towards the return to competitive action.
And for Leach, the first step will be to reclaim his role as England’s first-choice spinner. Dom Bess stepped up impressively in South Africa, while the return of Moeen Ali for the first time since last summer’s first Ashes Test at Edgbaston provides another big rival for what tends in England to be a solitary position.
“We’ve got five really good spinners,” Leach said, with Matt Parkinson and Amar Virdi also involved in the 30-man squad. “It feels like there’s everything to play for. There’s lots of competition throughout the squad and spin is no different. It’s about us all working together to be at our best. It’s up to the selectors and not up to us who takes that spot, but I’m so glad to see Mo back as well. When he’s at his best, he’s an unbelievable player.”
With 34 wickets at 29.02 in his ten Tests to date, Leach has proven to be a steady performer with the ball for England. However, he knows full well which of his feats have truly captured the public’s imagination to date – his twin innings of 92 against Ireland, scored as a nightwatchman opener after England had crumbled to 85 all out in their first innings at Lord’s last year, and of course, his crucial 1 not out in partnership with Ben Stokes in the Headingley thriller last summer.
“I’m going to tell people in the pub when I’m older that I opened the batting for England, so I don’t care how I’m remembered,” he said. “I pride myself on my bowling, because that’s why I’ve been picked in the team – I want to be bowling teams out on the last day, and remembered for that – but obviously everyone wants to talk about Headingley, and it’ll be hard for people not to remember that.
“I probably overthink at times, and that’s a mental thing that I’ve been working hard on. In my best moments, there hasn’t been a lot going through my mind. I think back to when I was out there with Stokes, and how focused I felt. It was a simple focus on what I was trying to do, and I want to apply that to my bowling as well – find that headspace where I can give my absolute best.”
“It is a little bit strange, but I guess those moments make you want to stay in the team,” he added. “I’ll be in the team longer if I bowl well, but if I keep getting remembered for batting innings, I’ll take that because I’ll be doing something right if I’m playing a lot.”