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The 290 days between Jack Leach's 16,511th and 16,512th balls in first-class cricket were some of the hardest of not only his professional career, but his life.
Leach feared he was dying after being diagnosed with sepsis in New Zealand over the winter, went home early from South Africa after struggling with illness throughout the tour, and had to lay low during the UK's Covid-19 lockdown on account of the immuno-suppressant medication he takes for his Crohn's disease. As England's back-up spinner, he then endured 10 weeks in their biosecure bubbles in Southampton and Manchester without getting a look-in, spending hours in the nets, carrying drinks and sitting in hotel rooms.
So the past few weeks have been a relief for him. He only bowled eight overs in Somerset's Bob Willis Trophy win away at Worcestershire, but has been able to balance his focus between cricket and life: small pleasures, like celebrating his girlfriend's birthday, getting the barbecue out, and spending time with his puppy have not been taken for granted.
Leach missed out on selection in all six Tests this summer, and admits that there were times when he found life in the bubble very challenging. He says he spent his time playing cards, watching Netflix, and pleading bubble-barista Chris Woakes for coffee, and mentions his close friend Jos Buttler, head coach Chris Silverwood, and team masseur Mark Saxby as three confidantes who "kept me on the right track" when he was struggling.
"In an environment like that, you go through a whole range of emotions," Leach says. "It wasn't easy - there were times when I felt like I'd like go home. But at the same time, I didn't want to miss out on the opportunity to play in a Test match, and everyone understood how difficult the situation was for everyone, and we kept each other going in there.
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"I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else, other than in the group of 20 guys competing for an England place. It became slightly harder when county cricket started again, and you felt like you were missing out on playing. But I kept on trying to make use of it: sometimes, when you're playing 12 months a year, you're crying out for a 10-week window where you can do some really good training work to take your game on."
Leach feels like the vast swathes of time he spent training have helped him tweak certain parts of his action, and crucially has helped him develop a clearer process when he is in the nets after working with Richard Dawson and Graeme Welch - a fast-bowling coach by trade, but one who has worked with Jeetan Patel for more than a decade at Warwickshire.
Leach is now jogging, rather than walking to the crease, to add some "energy" to his bowling, is trying to "keep things in straight lines" in his action having previously stuck his elbow out. He is also keeping the ball in his left hand throughout his action, having previously felt like he was rushing to grip the ball when transferring it from his right immediately before loading up. They are minor changes, but he is confident that they will have a positive impact.
"You have to have full belief in your training," Leach says. "I have a process of how I'm trying to go about things. I look at guys like Lyon, or Jadeja, or Vettori, and they all bowl totally different ways [to each other] but there are some fundamentals there for a strong action. I guess I'm just trying to simplify things: I'm trying to be the best Jack Leach I can be, not trying to copy others, or trying one thing one day and another the next."
Leach has found himself in an unusual situation with his Somerset team-mate Dom Bess this summer: he is the first-choice spinner at county level, but England's understudy. They spoke about the situation this year as Bess decided whether to extend his contract, and agreed it would be best for everyone if they went their separate ways, with Bess signing a four-year deal at Yorkshire last month.
"We're obviously fighting it out for England and for our county at the moment, and that can be quite a difficult situation for the guy that misses out," Leach says. "You want to feel like you've got a club to return to and be a big part of if you're not playing international cricket. I think it was the right decision for him, but it's sad to see him go - we've had some good times bowling in tandem."
There could be one final opportunity for them to do just that at Lord's this week, though Bess may be left to run the drinks given the potency of Somerset's seam attack throughout the red-ball season. As he did in last year's title decider at Taunton, Leach will go head to head with Simon Harmer, Essex's talismanic offspinner, and hopes that the result will be different this time around.
"If we beat Essex, we'll deserve to win the tournament," he says. "It would be a good feat for the club, and another trophy. I did feel a little bit rusty [against Worcestershire] but I think I've learned from even a short spell in the middle, and now I feel like the ball is coming out even better. I'm itching to get back out on the pitch and show what I can do.
"[The final] is set up quite nicely. I have great admiration for Harmer as a bowler: I don't want to put too much pressure on myself, because he's bowled a lot more overs than me this summer. I feel in a good place, but I have to be realistic with myself, and see where it goes. But I do feel ready to put in a good performance. I guess I've put a little bit of pressure on myself by saying that, haven't I?"