Jack Leach calls for better cricket pitches … back home in England

Perhaps, after a fortnight or so when the topic of pitches has dominated the conversation, it was to be expected that an England player might eventually pass comment.

Until this point, all the debate about the surfaces in India had been carried out in the media. The England team – and the England team management – have made no negative comment. Indeed, they’re reiterated the party line: the wickets have been challenging and they have been out-played on them by a fine India side.

But, after a media conference in which the question was asked, then asked again and then asked in fancy dress, someone finally broke ranks. Jack Leach had a view. And yes, he was suggesting better wickets were required.

The only issue – well, an issue for those hoping for a controversy to stoke more eye-catching headlines – was that Leach was talking about pitches in England. Echoing the comments of his captain, Joe Root, who called for “serious improvements” in the standard of county wickets after the third Test, Leach suggested that, if the county game was going to better prepare players for the spin challenge expected in Asia, it could start by preparing ‘better’ wickets.

“My thoughts are that the wickets in county cricket in general need to be good surfaces to start with,” Leach said. “Then, if they can break up and bring spin into the game later on, I think that’s a good thing for producing spinners.

“They can bowl in the first innings on good wickets. And then, in the second innings when things are starting to happen, they [learn to deal with] the pressure of being the guy who needs to try and bowl the opposition out. That’s the ideal, I think.

“If the spinner is playing in a four-man attack with three seamers and a spinner, then I think the role of the spinner becomes more important. But if there’s four or five seamers [in the side], or a couple of batters that also bowl seam, then I think your overs [as a spinner] can really go down; especially on some of the county wickets I’ve played on in the last couple of years.”

Leach built his reputation, in part at least, by bowling on wickets at Taunton which were rarely described as ‘good’. While they might provide pretty decent preparation for playing on surfaces such as those seen in Chennai and Ahmedabad in recent days – and they certainly helped Leach catch the selectors’ eyes – they are not the sort of pitches either he or Root have in mind.

Instead, they mean the sort of surface on which a spinner might be used in the first innings to offer control and variation – Root had suggested the sort of surface where teams routinely score 400 or 500 – and the sort of surface on which they may play an increasing role in the second as the wicket wears. In short, both Leach and Root are calling for surfaces which are better for batting, limit the influence of seamers armed with a Dukes ball and better replicate the conditions traditionally seen at Test level around the world. All of which seems reasonable enough.

But quite how these comments are received around the county game remains to be seen. Certainly groundstaff, who might feel a little criticised here, could be forgiven for reacting with a rueful smile. As if their jobs, given the volume of cricket played in England each summer, is not already hard, asking them to prepare Test-quality batting surfaces in the early weeks of the county season is probably unreasonable. If England really want to improve their county surfaces, they will almost certainly have to improve their domestic schedule, and avoid playing the bulk of the season when seamers predominate.

In 2021, eight of the 14 rounds of County Championship cricket are scheduled to take place before the end of May (four take place before the end of April) with four more rounds (and the Bob Willis Trophy final) taking place in autumnal September. That leaves just two rounds – eight days of cricket, in other words – scheduled to take place in July or August when surfaces might be expected to provide most assistance to spin bowlers.

This was an issue hinted at by England’s newly-appointed spin-bowling coach, Jeetan Patel. But while Patel was happy to allude to the problem, he is also a realist. Just as he found a way to flourish in county cricket, he is adamant young spinners can “upskill” to the point they “can still contribute in April and September.”

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