From ‘village cricketer’ to cult hero: Jack Leach relives his 17-ball epic | Vic Marks | Sport



Well, his running between the wickets borders on the diabolical. It is not straightforward to find a fresh slant upon Ben Stokes’s innings of the century – and possibly any century. However, he is not the first great player for whom there is considerable scope for improvement in this department. Denis Compton was in this category, so too Geoffrey Boycott and in this generation Kane Williamson – peerless batsmen yet sometimes harum-scarum runners.

At Headingley Jos Buttler had to go and but for a Nathan Lyon fumble, which – as the Aussies are keen to note whenever possible – might leave a few scars, Jack Leach should have done as well in the penultimate over of the Test, which must now be known as Headingley 19. Leach had scurried down the pitch, given that it was the fifth ball of the over, and Stokes was slow to deter him. Leach was not that keen to dwell on that for long afterwards.

“That was not a nice moment but it’s all good,” he said. “I don’t want to focus on that moment. I want to focus on running down to Stokes when he hit the winning runs.”

In the spirit of cooperation and in pursuit of better running let us remind Stokes there is a case for the non-striking batsman to watch his partner from the other end, which was something that he declined to do when Leach was on strike. Apparently he could not bear to look, which revealed a rare glimmer of frailty in England’s lionhearted saviour.

Afterwards Leach posed the question to the BBC: “Doesn’t he think I can play?” A fair question given that Leach was just about flawless when dealing with the 17 deliveries propelled in his direction by the Australians.

Leach’s solitary run tied the match. Hours after the Test had finished with the England players sitting on the Headingley square mulling things over, he was prevailed upon to re?enact the greatest single of his career and the greatest innings of his life – even though he hit 92 in a Test against Ireland a month ago. I imagine he was very happy to do so.

Leach gives his spectacles a wipe while in discussion with Stokes

Leach gives his spectacles a wipe while in discussion with Stokes. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

In the glow of victory Leach might have been tempted to embroider a bit when explaining his feelings as he strode to the wicket on that unforgettable Sunday afternoon. But that is not his way.

“A few people said: ‘How nice would it be to score the winning runs?’ And I was like: ‘Yeah, I’ve thought about it and it would be nice to score the winning runs, but I don’t want to be in that position in the first place.’”

In fact he has been there several times in less conspicuous circumstances and he has helped to see his side home. Perhaps the most memorable occasion was in May 2016 when a last-wicket partnership of 31 against Surrey ensured a one-wicket victory for Somerset at Taunton. In that match Leach, who had been batting at No 10, was 24 not out.

But this was on a different plane. “The crowd here were amazing, I’ve never experienced an atmosphere like it.”

Stokes was amazing, too. “He was unbelievable,” Leach said. “Walking out with 73 to win, I don’t know if you can believe you can do it. But I wanted to do my job because he was saying he’d face four or five balls an over. I got on with it and it quite quickly seemed to go down and suddenly it’s eight to win and you’re like ‘Oh my God’.”

Leach could not quite remember the exact details of their conversation upon his arrival at the crease. “I think he spoke about the plan, how we would go about it. Straightaway he was thinking how we would knock off the runs. He obviously believed that it was definitely going to happen. It seemed that simple. I can’t remember who was bowling, Pattinson I think. It was just about getting to the end of the over and I managed that. It is all a bit of a blur to be honest.

“I didn’t want to get in Stokesy’s bubble when he was hitting those sixes. I didn’t want to say too much. He said in the changing room he got nervous when it was down to eight. I just wanted him to focus on every ball and if it was there, hit it for six. I just had to stay calm and do the job at hand. I felt good; I was really focused on what I needed to do.”

Staying calm for Leach meant giving some attention to his glasses. “I just had to make sure they were clean every time I was facing because I would really regret it if they had been smudged.”

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His glasses are now nearly as famous as those of David Steele four decades ago. Like Steele he is in danger of becoming a cult hero.

“That’s nice,” he said. “I don’t really know what that it is. It’s probably because I look like a village cricketer out there with my glasses, the bald head and maybe people think: ‘That could be me. All the others look pretty professional.’”

But all the others had been dismissed at Headingley – except for Stokes, who was able to tinker with fate.

“Watching the World Cup final as a fan shows that anything is possible,” Leach said. “Ben was at the centre of that as well. Maybe Ben Stokes has to be at the centre of all things that are possible.”

Could he solve Brexit? “No.”