The Ashes, Headingley, 2019. Jack Leach polishes his glasses. The evening sun glints in the lenses. England needs two to win. Leach takes his guard. Ben Stokes can’t watch; the fans are on the edge of their seat. Pat Cummins roars in as he bowls. A short ball! A push into the leg side, it beats the fielder and they’re through for a single! England can’t lose! Stokes will crunch the next ball to the boundary to win the match. He finishes on a heroic 135 not out. The English crowd goes delirious. The Ashes are alive. Stokes’s innings is arguably the best ever, by anyone. But it’s not as impressive as Leach’s one not out. That’s what the people will remember. In a world where athletes are so fine-tuned, they often seem to almost be a different species, Leach is the people’s hero. The images of him stood at the very centre of the drama on that balmy, barmy afternoon last August in Leeds, polishing his glasses, will live long in the memory.
Surely, after this, he’s in the national team for as long as he wants? However, now his Somerset teammate Dom Bess, who looks more like he should be vying for a spot in the under 15’s, has been selected ahead of him. Who is the better player? Leach is a national hero, but at 22, Dom Bess could be the future of the England team.
The story began in the summer of 2016, when a dry and turning wicket at Taunton was used to great effect by left-arm orthodox spinner Jack Leach. He took full advantage of the conditions and very nearly bowled Somerset to their first ever County Championship title. Leach’s unlikely success thrust him into the limelight as one of the leading spinners in England. His arrival on the scene was unexpected but when 20-year-old Bess announced himself on the scene with 6-51 on debut it was quite staggering. He followed it up with 5-43 in Somerset’s last game of the season, briefly taking the club to the top of the table only to be overhauled by Middlesex on a dramatic final day. The pair had changed the prospects of Somerset, and it was felt that it wouldn’t be long before the England selectors came calling. Unfortunately, Leach suffered a big blow when he was forced to remodel his action after it was found that the bend in his arm exceeded the 15-degree limit. However, he found his form again and the pair formed a fearsome partnership during 2017. Together, the duo put many batting lineups to the sword on spin-friendly pitches at Taunton, now known as ‘Ciderabad’ – in homage to the dry pitches and deadly spin bowling. Leach earned his test debut against New Zealand in 2018, but a broken thumb put his England career on hold. Bess was the unlikely beneficiary as he was handed his England debut against Pakistan at the age of just 20. However, Leach recovered again and did enough to gain selection for the winter of 2018 when he helped England to their first series win in Sri Lanka since 2001. He would finish the series as the tourists’ joint leading wicket taker, alongside Moeen Ali.
No one could have predicted the dramatic events that were about to occur during the summer of 2019, or that Leech would be at the very centre of them. The public will likely remember his contributions with the bat – the battling 92 against Ireland to keep England in what an intriguing match, and of course the infamous ‘one not out’ against Australia – but this doesn’t tell the whole story. After England dropped Ali following defeat in the first Ashes test, Leach was called up as a replacement. He performed consistently throughout the series and looked to have cemented his place as the best spinner in England, but just as it looked like Leach’s England career was getting going, he suffered another setback as illness counted him out of the 2019 tour to South Africa. It was once again Bess who would take his place. Now more mature than when he made his debut, Bess bowled with control in his two test matches and took his first five wicket haul in Port Elizabeth. Both players were selected for the tour to Sri Lanka and with two or more spin places up for grabs in the team to play on dry Sri Lankan pitches, the stage was set for the Somerset duo to feature for England. Then, Covid-19 brought the world to a standstill. The test matches were cancelled, and the players flew home.
Now, things are getting back to normal, and the summer of cricket is about to begin. England’s squad for the first match against West Indies has been announced, with Bess selected ahead of Leach. This has raised many eyebrows. Why would you drop the national hero? What has Bess done to earn his place over Leach?
Both players have similar overall test match records. In their short test careers, Leach has taken 34 wickets to Bess’s 11, although Leach has a slightly worse economy rate (2.85 runs per over, or rpo, compared to Bess’s 2.26 rpo,). Leach does take his wickets more regularly, striking every 61 balls compared to Bess’s 79.
Leach has also already shown that he can be effective in test matches in England. His 12 wickets in five home tests have come at a 28 bowling average. This is comparable to other England spinners such as Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, and of spinners to have taken more than 10 wickets in England this century, only Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan have taken them at a better average. Obviously, it is still early in Leach’s career, but it is impressive that he should be performing at a similar level to such spin bowlers. In contrast, Bess’s three wickets in England have come at a little over 40. These were during the series against Pakistan in 2018 when Bess was 20, and he has undoubtedly improved in the time since those matches.
A fairer comparison of recent performances in England might be the 2019 County Championship. Leach took 34 wickets at a miserly 18 bowling average, going at 2.4 rpo. Bess managed 26 at 26, at 2.5 rpo. Both bowlers were playing for the same team and both played roughly the same number of matches (eleven for Leach, nine for Bess). Moreover, when playing for Somerset, Leach is considered the front-line spinner and Bess is second choice. Why then would things be different on international duty?
Another question is whether the differences in the bowling actions of Bess’s right arm offspin and Leach’s left arm orthodox will affect how successful they are likely to be in the upcoming series. The journalist Matt Roller investigated this for the website CricInfo. Roller found that against right-handed batters, left arm spinners have a better bowling average of 31, compared to 38 for offspin bowlers. Against left-handed batters, left arm spin bowlers average 36, while offspin bowlers have a better average of 28. The West Indies side is likely to feature only one or two left-handed batters and Leach is likely to be the more threatening bowler. Furthermore, many of the key players in the West Indies batting line up, such as Jason Holder, Shai Hope, and Shane Dowrich, have considerably worse records against slow left arm bowling, and Leach could be particularly dangerous. Roller writes that: “It may be a simplification to look at finger spinners only through the lens of whether they turn the ball into or away from a batsman, but raw statistics help illustrate the point.”
The statistics suggest that Leach would be a better choice than Bess for the upcoming series, because the former has performed better in the past and because his bowling style typically performs better against this West Indies side. And yet, England have not picked him. So why would the selectors go against the statistics?
In the most recent match that the two players were involved in, a practice match within the squad, Bess took more wickets at a better economy rate than his teammate. It doesn’t seem entirely fair to judge players on their performance in a one-off match in these unprecedented circumstances, but it could be seen as a sign that Bess is bringing better form into the summer.
Another consideration is the age of the two players. At 29, Leach is in his prime. In contrast, Bess is 22 and still developing. Recently, the England selectors have put their faith in a number of young players. Olly Pope (22), Jofra Archer (25), and Dominic Sibley (24) already look well established in the side and could be making important contributions for the next 10 years or more. Though he has not yet shown the same promise, Bess is definitely another player England hope will be a big name in the future, so perhaps he has been picked because the selectors are looking to the future, putting their faith in youth in the hope that this group of exciting players can grow and develop together.
What’s more, one area where Bess undoubtedly outperforms Leach is with the bat. Bess has a first-class batting average of 23 and though the half century on his debut was not enough to stop Pakistan winning that match, it showed his potential as a useful low middle order player. Leach averages just 12 in first class cricket and bats in the last few for Somerset. Even though his 92 against Ireland in the chaotic test match at Lords and heroics at Headingley in the Ashes are arguably the highlights of his test career so far, and he often performs nightwatchman duties, his batting is simply not a threat. If Bess has indeed been selected on the grounds of his batting, then it continues a long run of England selecting spinners based on their batting ability. Moeen Ali initially kept Leach out of the England team due to his superior ability to get lower order runs.
The decision then seems to be a case of weighing up whether it is more important to select the best player for his position, or one who has performed only marginally worse but can also be seen as an exciting prospect for the future, and boasts a bit extra with his batting ability. Test match cricket is the pinnacle of the game and so should not be used to help players develop, especially in this case where selectors are only likely to pick one spinner for matches in England, due to the conditions. National hero Leach has shown himself to be a better pick because he is the best spin bowler in the country. Despite this, England’s decision to select Bess is unsurprising due to the increased focus on young players at the moment. Bess’s statistics show he is undoubtedly a talented player and will probably do well, but Leach would have been likely to do better.
Ultimately, it is refreshing that England have a selection problem in the spin bowling department, something that we haven’t seen for many years. It is extremely exciting to be able to choose between two world class spinners. Bess will benefit from the experience of Leach and Bess’s improvements will push Leach to continue to improve. England can call on world class spinners again. If memories of ‘one not out’ are bright, the future looks even brighter.
Image Rights via geograph.org.uk