England’s gutsy call to drop Moeen Ali for Jack Leach for the second Ashes Test was spot on given Australia’s struggles against left arm spinners.
Ali was the leading Test wicket-taker worldwide in the 12 months prior to the Ashes. But England made a tough choice based on the off spinner’s continued failures against Australia, having taken just 15 wickets at 78 in his past ten Ashes matches.
He looks set to be replaced in England’s starting XI by Leach, a left-arm finger spinner who has made a good start to his Test career and owns an excellent first-class record.
Leach seems to have been picked, in part, to target Australian superstar Steve Smith, who incredibly has made six tons in his past ten Test innings against England.
A lot has been made of Smith’s lesser potency against left-arm orthodox tweakers. Yet that is in fact reflective of a wider issue for Australia, who have been troubled by left-arm finger spinners far more than off-spinners since the 2015 Ashes.
In that time, specialist off-spinners have laboured against Australia, taking 79 wickets at 40. By comparison, specialist left-arm finger spinners have been very successful versus the Aussies, grabbing 106 wickets at 25.
India’s Ravi Jadeja was the most recent left armer to flourish against Australia, taking seven wickets at 28 in his two Tests last Australian summer and building pressure with his sensational economy rate of 2.24 runs an over.
Jadeja was also the bowler of the series when Australia toured India in 2017, hoarding 25 wickets at 18.
Meanwhile, in South Africa last year, left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj was the Proteas’ second-highest wicket-taker for the series, taking 17 wickets from four Tests.
Maharaj categorically outbowled star Australian offie Nathan Lyon in that series and challenged all of the Aussie batsmen, including Smith.
Left-arm finger spin dismissed Smith in three of his six innings in that series, with even part-timer Dean Elgar getting him once.
Six months prior to that Australia’s batting line-up struggled against Bangladesh left-arm spinners Shakib al Hasan and Taijul Islam. Together that pair took 18 wickets at 25 in the two-Test series, regularly making key breakthroughs.
A year previous to that it was left-arm orthodox spinner Rangana Herath who ran riot against the Aussies in Sri Lanka, taking 28 wickets at 12 from three Tests.
Of course, none of this guarantees success for Leach.
The 28-year-old remains an inexperienced international cricketer, with just five Tests to his name. He has taken well to Test cricket so far, though, with 20 wickets at 26, and was particularly impressive on turning pitches in Sri Lanka late last year.
England may regret not having played him ahead of Ali at Edgbaston, where Lyon ran amok on a dry pitch while his fellow off-spinner floundered. Ali’s inability to maintain a testing line and length in that Test was a major hindrance for the home side.
Accuracy, meanwhile, is Leach’s greatest strength. He is not a big turner of the ball and doesn’t get his deliveries to leap off the pitch like Lyon. But Leach does have fine control, which combined with subtle variations in pace, flight and angle make him difficult to get after.
With express quick Jofra Archer coming into their attack for the second Test, England boast plenty of strikepower with the ball.
First and foremost they will want control out of their spinner, something Ali has never been able to provide them in Ashes Tests.