Pak vs Eng, 2nd Test – ‘It’s more than I felt I’ll ever achieve’

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Sportem
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A humble Jack Leach was in disbelief at achieving 100 Test wickets, regarding the feat as more than he felt he’d ever achieve and something he did not think “would ever happen” on the day he became the 49th England bowler to pass the milestone.

The left-arm spinner took 4 for 98 on the second day of the Multan Test, as Pakistan were dismissed for 202 in their first innings. Having taken the first of those on the first evening, he arrived on Saturday with 99 dismissals to his name. A dragged heave from Saud Shakeel, caught brilliantly by James Anderson running back from mid-on, took him to three figures.

The celebrations said it all: jubilation from the Somerset spinner matched by that of his teammates, particularly captain Ben Stokes who was the first to embrace the 31-year-old as he wheeled away with glee.

“I did know coming into the game I needed a couple of wickets,” Leach said at stumps, with England’s lead at 281 with five second-innings wickets remaining. “It was a nice feeling. The boys were always really happy for me. I was just pleased to get a wicket in that situation of the game, really.

“I just felt like, I don’t know, 100 wickets feels like quite a lot. And it’s more than I felt I’ll ever achieve. I need to remember that. As sportsmen and as people, it’s easy to just push on to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing, and nothing’s ever enough.”

“But if you told me that when I was a kid that I’d take 100 wickets, I would have laughed at you. So yes, it is special.”

He became the 13th left-arm spinner to register 100 wickets for his country. But most impressively of all, the 50 innings it took to get here puts him in elite company: Wasim Akram, Chaminda Vaas, Shoaib Akthar, Rangana Herath, Mitchell Starc and Keshav Maharaj to do it in as many.

While Shakeel’s wicket took him to 100, it was the next wicket of Mohammad Rizwan that was the most spectacular. Having been struck over his head for four, Leach got one to dip and spin off a leg-stump line and strike middle as the right-hander hung back and was beaten on the outside edge. A chip from Mohammad Nawaz to Stokes in close gave him four for the innings and took him to 102 across his career, at an average of 33.75.

“I’m just loving playing for England, the most I’ve ever loved it. And it’s because it’s all about the team, it’s not about me. And that’s a special feeling”

That Leach has achieved all this, not to mention playing in his 31st Test, is an indication of his resilience. He suffers from Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease, that was first diagnosed at the age of 14. It is managed with immunosuppressant medication, which weakens the immune system and thus leaves Leach prone to other ailments that could be life-threatening.

During a tour of New Zealand at the end of 2019, he was hospitalised with a life-threatening bout of sepsis after suffering from food poisoning. It meant he did not feature on that tour, and the knock-on effects into South Africa meant he did not play any of England’s four Tests there at the start of 2020, leaving before the third after his struggles became insurmountable. He would later have to shield himself during the Covid-19 pandemic because he was regarded as medically vulnerable.

He almost missed the first Test of this series in Pakistan with illness, falling victim to the virus that affected the majority of the playing squad and staff ahead of the opening match in Rawalpindi. He pulled through, taking three in the match, including the winning wicket at the end of day five to secure one of England’s most audacious victories in the format.

“I wouldn’t think it would have been possible, just probably health-wise more than anything. I was quite close to not playing the first Test. There’re lots of different challenges. I’m aware everyone has their challenges, I’m aware mine have been quite out there. That’s good because I want to be open and honest with people. There’ve been some definite lows along the way, but it does sort of make it all worth it.”

There have been professional battles too, from struggling for first XI cricket at Somerset to biding his time with England since making his debut in March 2018. But since Stokes took over under head coach Brendon McCullum, Leach has enjoyed a renewed sense of purpose and drive as the number one spinner. He credits both with the comfort he has in his role at the moment. He has been the only bowler to play in all nine Tests since their stewardship began at the start of the summer.

“Ben and Baz [McCullum] have a lot to do with that,” he said when asked of his surer footing at international level. “But I think also just I’ve probably been learning on the job in Test cricket. I feel like I’m getting better and better, and learning more and more. It’s nice to feel like I’m in control of what I’m doing. It feels good. Because if we’re winning lots of games, then everything kind of takes care of itself.

“I feel like I’m just loving playing for England, the most I’ve ever loved it. And it’s because it’s all about the team, it’s not about me. And that’s a special feeling.”

In the immediate future, he will have to play a prominent role in the ongoing second Test in Multan. The tourists boast a 281-run lead going into day three on a pitch spinning and now exhibiting indifferent bounce. Any victory, which would seal a famous series win with a match to spare, rests on him. For now, however, he is still coming to terms with breaking the 100-wicket barrier.

“I can’t really believe it. I didn’t think that would ever happen, so it’s a nice, big milestone to get to.” As for where he goes from here: “Just try and get another 100 now, I guess?”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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