The loss of left-arm spinner Jack Leach from the upcoming Ashes series not only depletes further England’s frontline bowling stocks, but it could challenge their commitment to the ‘Bazball’ philosophy of always choosing the attacking option.
Leach was ruled out of the five-match Ashes campaign on Sunday after developing back soreness during England’s recent Test win over Ireland at Lord’s, with scans taken after the game confirming the 31-year-old has a lower lumbar stress fracture.
Leach, who became something of an England cult hero as the result of the unbeaten single he scored in a famous last-wicket partnership with Ben Stokes to seal a remarkable win at Leeds in the 2019 Ashes, had emerged as a vital component of his team’s bowling strategy under Stokes’s captaincy.
Since Brendon McCullum was appointed England coach a year ago and Stokes’s men adopted the ultra-attacking mode of Test match play, Leach has claimed 45 wickets at an average of 38.2 from 12 matches.
That included the Somerset spinner’s maiden 10-wicket haul, which came against reigning World Test Champions New Zealand at Leeds in June last year.
But more vitally, he has sent down in excess of 500 overs in that period – more than any other Test bowler across that time frame – and held down an end, which enables England to attack by rotating seamers James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Ollie Robinson and Matt Potts in short spells from the other.
Australia men’s team coach Andrew McDonald noted Leach’s role in England’s new philosophy when interviewed on Melbourne radio station SEN prior to his squad’s departure for the UK last month.
“While there has been a lot of focus on their batting unit and how they’ve gone, and how they’ve expressed themselves, there’s also been a bowling unit that’s been really productive,” McDonald said.
“Their strike rates have gone down by about 10 balls per wicket, and Jack Leach has had a big say within that as well.”
With Leach now missing from the Test attack, England’s selectors face a quandary as to who might replace him given the best-credentialled attacking options (leg spinner Rehan Ahmed, off-spinner Will Jacks and allrounder Liam Livingstone) are lacking in Test experience.
That may tempt England’s selectors to revert to previously tried spin options such as Dom Bess, Liam Dawson or Matt Parkinson, or perhaps even call up allrounder Moeen Ali who announced his retirement from Test cricket in 2021.
It would represent a radical departure from the ‘fearless attack’ mantra practiced by McCullum and Stokes, with another potential option being the deployment of part-time spin options such as former skipper Joe Root while loading up on seam bowling specialists instead.
England’s Ashes stocks have already been hobbled by the loss of their fastest bowler Jofra Archer to a recurrence of an elbow injury, while Anderson and Robinson were not considered for last week’s one-off Test against Ireland due to groin and ankle injuries respectively.
Furthermore, Stokes has only recently returned to the bowling crease and did not take the ball during his team’s thumping win over Ireland and appeared to aggravate the left knee injury he’s been carrying when completing a catch in the field.
England’s selectors had only released their 16-man squad for the Ashes series on Saturday, and are expected to name their revised personnel with Leach’s replacement in coming days.
2023 Qantas Ashes Tour of the UK
First Test: Friday June 16-Tuesday June 20, Edgbaston
Second Test: Wednesday June 28-Sunday July 2, Lord’s
Third Test: Thursday July 6-Monday July 10, Headingley
Fourth Test: Wednesday July 19-Sunday July 23, Old Trafford
Fifth Test: Thursday July 27-Monday 31, The Oval
Australia squad: Pat Cummins (c), Scott Boland, Alex Carey (wk), Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Josh Inglis (wk), Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitch Marsh, Todd Murphy, Matthew Renshaw, Steve Smith (vc), Mitchell Starc, David Warner
England squad: Ben Stokes (c), James Anderson, Jonathan Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Harry Brook, Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Ollie Pope, Matthew Potts, Ollie Robinson, Joe Root, Josh Tongue, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood