Cricket news - From battling illness to battling for places, Leach can't seem to catch a break

Coming out of a miserable spell of illness, the left-arm spinner now wants his bowling to take centre stage

Coming out of a miserable spell of illness, the left-arm spinner now wants his bowling to take centre stage

Listening to Jack Leach explain what he went through last winter, one thought immediately comes to mind: can't the bloke catch a break?

He played the first Test of England's winter, on an unfriendly surface in Mount Manganui, but then got food poisoning ahead of the second game in Hamilton. "That progressed quite dramatically through a 12-hour period and it turned into a sort of sepsis. I was in a very, very bad way," he says. He has admitted to fearing for his life as his heart rate rose to 190 and his temperature hit 40 degrees.

After spending a couple of nights in hospital, Leach flew home but then was heading out to South Africa a little over a week later. "A very tough ask to be ready for another international tour probably, looking back," he admits. "And then with all the travel, I picked up this cough, temperature and just felt shattered." He wonders now whether he had actually picked up Coronavirus.

"Having been through what I'd been through in New Zealand, all the medication I was on, I struggled to fight that off as well and just ended up feeling like lead because the levels were so low," he says. "That was at the start of South Africa and then there was this team bug going round. Obviously, I caught that because I catch everything."

The sickness bug ran through England's squad like nobody's business and Leach, like a lot of the players who got it, lost weight. He also has Crohn's disease, a bowel disease that requires medication which weakens his immune system, which meant it took longer for Leach to shake off the bug than it did for the other players. "It just wasn't happening -- it felt like I was trying to push and push and I wasn't feeling right," he says.

It was decided to send him home early in a bid to get right for the tour to Sri Lanka in March. He was recovering well and then got a tear in his calf which meant he had to take a couple of weeks off training. Once recovered from that, Leach flew out to Sri Lanka and was all set to play in the two Test matches when Covid-19 escalated. Along with the rest of the squad, he returned home. More matches missed.

It was, therefore, a frustrating winter, made even more so because Leach had done well during last summer's Ashes series and had begun the tour to New Zealand as the number one spinner in Moeen Ali's self-imposed absence. The horrible run of illnesses robbed him of the chance to fully cement that place and now, with Moeen back in Test contention, and Dom Bess having impressed in South Africa, Leach's standing in the spin rankings is uncertain.

Not that he is concerned with the pecking order right now. "I'm thinking about trying to bring my best to the England set-up," Leach says. "I feel like I haven't done that yet and it takes a bit of working out mentally how you want to go about things. You've come from county cricket where you feel like you are massively involved and you do that through performing over and over. Here I feel like I haven't done that yet and I think I have a better understanding of why that is."

Understanding what he needs to do to prepare for matches is an area that Leach thinks he has improved. "My practice and preparation is something I feel I can get better, and I can make it work better for me," he says. "That's been a lot in my thoughts. We play this team game, but it's about individuals getting themselves ready for the game. I just need to give that a bit more thought, which will then help me going into games. It's definitely been making a difference to how I feel.

"But it's hard to just relax. You have to understand what makes you tick. I think I try to control things so much through... the more I think about something the more I can control it. Whereas sometimes when you're in automatic, you do it a lot better. I think some of my best moments, there hasn't been a lot going through my mind.

"I think back to that innings [at Headingley against Australia last year] when I was out there with [Ben] Stokes, how focused I felt and how it was just real simple what I was trying to do. I want to apply that to my bowling as well and find that headspace where I can give my absolute best."

Leach's part in England's famous victory at Headingley will live long in the memory but he wants his bowling to take centre stage in future. "I'm going to tell people in the pub when I'm older that I opened the batting for England," he jokes. "I pride myself on my bowling: that's why I'm picked, to do that. I want to be bowling teams out on the last day, and that's what I want to be remembered for. Everyone talks about Headingley, and it will be hard not to remember that."

Leach's first target is to be part of England's team for the opening Test at the Ageas Bowl which begins on July 8. The next two weeks of pre-series training in Southampton is an opportunity to press his claims. "My main aim [is] to bring my best to the party and if I do that then I won't be far away," he says. "We've got five really good spinners here so it feels like there's everything to play for, like 30 guys all are playing for spots.

"There's lots of competition throughout the squad and spin is no different. It's about us all working together to all be at our best. Then it's up to the selectors and not up to us who takes that spot. I'm so glad to see Mo back as well. Mo at his best is an unbelievable player, so yes it'll be interesting to see."

Although having Crohn's disease puts Leach in a higher risk category should he catch Covid-19, he says he feels safe in England's bio-secure bubble. "I spoke to my consultant and doctors and they felt the medication I'm on puts me at a little bit of higher risk, but what I did come through in the winter suggests I can fight things off quite well. I'm maybe not as high risk as others on that medication," he says.

"My Crohn's is under control, which is great for me. The fact I'm fit and reasonably healthy apart from that gives me a good chance as well. I've been doing everything I need to do, for everyone else around me, and sticking by the rules, but I'm not too nervous if I got it... I feel quite safe here in a bio-secure environment."