India's Shahbaz Nadeem in action during the 4th day of first cricket test match between India and England, at M.A. Chidambaram Stadium.(PTI)
India's Shahbaz Nadeem in action during the 4th day of first cricket test match between India and England, at M.A. Chidambaram Stadium.(PTI)

In India, the second innings belongs to the left-arm spinner

  • The absence of Jadeja (he dislocated his thumb in Sydney) was felt even more so because his like-for-like replacement in Shahbaz Nadeem didn’t quite go according to the think-tank’s plan, even in the second innings.
UPDATED ON FEB 12, 2021 09:15 AM IST

“Thought I was playing in the IPL,” deadpanned Jack Leach, making James Anderson break into laughter as the English bowling heroes of the Chennai Test stood beaming beside each other in the post-win interview. That was the left-arm spinner’s answer to what it felt like to be mauled in his introductory bowling innings in Indian conditions. That attack was at the hands of Rishabh Pant of course, who, at one stage, hit Leach for four sixes in the space of 10 balls.

Leach is known for his sense of humour. Like when he recreated his most famous single in Test cricket—the run that helped England get level with Australia’s target in the Headingley Test—for his buzzing teammates, just hours after the famous win in 2019. He did it with flair; the nudge behind square, the loud call of “yes” and a comically fast run with a fist in the air.

Leach wears the one-run-wonder tag with ease for a man who scored a career-best 92 at Lord’s just a month before Headingley, after opening a Test innings as a nightwatchman, no less. But batting isn’t his forte, finger-spin is. Humour, then, is an effective way of dealing with being smacked for 77 runs in your first eight overs on an extremely conducive track for spin bowling.

“Look, it was a challenge. Definitely. As a spinner you have got to expect that at times. But I am never going to enjoy eight overs for eighty,” said Leach. “You have got to stay strong mentally and the boys really helped me out. It was a tough evening, that evening, and I just wanted to come back stronger in the next innings.”

Easier said than done, but what would’ve helped Leach is the fact that Test cricket in India, especially in the second innings, is a left-arm spinner’s idea of heaven. Just ask Ravindra Jadeja, who averages just 17.35 runs per wicket when bowling in the second innings in home Tests, second only to another left-arm spinner— Bishan Singh Bedi, who averaged 15.36 (eligibility criteria: 50 second-innings wickets in India).

It was solely due to Jadeja that India beat England in the Chennai Test of 2016, a match otherwise dominated by high scores (Karun Nair’s triple hundred being only one of them). England had posted a total of 477 runs in the first innings and yet lost the match by an innings, mainly because no one quite exploits the footmarks/rough outside the right-handed bat’s leg stump quite like Jadeja. He took seven wickets (7/48, his best-ever) and England lost all their wickets in the space of a session and a bit.

The absence of Jadeja (he dislocated his thumb in Sydney) was felt even more so because his like-for-like replacement in Shahbaz Nadeem didn’t quite go according to the think-tank’s plan, even in the second innings. But luckily for England, Leach had a much better outing the second time around, and a lot of that had to do with his length—fuller, possibly an obvious course-correction due to the fast expanding rough. Both the natural variation off an abrasive pitch and Leach’s own guile made for a potent combination.

“It’s my first time in India and they have got a great batting line-up, and I knew the pressure that comes with it. So, I was really happy to take some wickets and get the boys over the line,” Leach said about his second innings figures of 4/76, his fifth innings haul of four-plus wickets in the subcontinent. It wasn’t just about “some wickets” as Leach put it, but who those “some” were.

In the second innings, Leach opened the bowling with Jofra Archer and was hit for a boundary in his first and second overs by Shubman Gill. But in his third, he dismissed a dangerous Rohit Sharma, who had just smashed Archer for a four and a six in the previous over. Sharma had come forward to defend a full and flighted ball. But the ball appeared from a dust cloud and spun around the face of his bat and pegged back the off stump.

That was at the very end of Day Four, and the beginning of Day Five was no different for Leach. At this early hour, he claimed possibly the most crucial Indian wicket in a fourth innings, Cheteshwar Pujara. It was once again a flighted ball on length, but this time it bounced enough to surprise Pujara by clipping his thumb. Ben Stokes completed the formality at first slip.

Pujara was the first of nine Indian wickets to fall in the space of two sessions on the final day. Leach claimed two more victims in fellow spinners Nadeem and R Ashwin, a slather of icing on an already delicious turnaround. “I’ve gone a long time without playing much cricket so (it took) some getting used to bowling long spells in the heat,” said Leach and smiled. “It was very worthwhile.”

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