A few minutes after the end of the third Ashes Test, a member of England’s support staff was seen entering the dressing room bearing a precious cargo he had probably assumed would be staying on the team bus: two crates of beer, perched sturdily on his shoulder. In this respect at least, England’s Headingley heroes of 2019 had been more perspicacious than their forebears. When Mike Brearley’s side were toasting their unlikely triumph in 1981, someone had the bright idea of sending someone into the Australian dressing room to ask if they had any champagne. The underling was politely but firmly asked to leave.
This wasn’t the only thing that had changed since 1981. Back then, Bob Willis’s demonic spell of 8 for 43 had unfolded in front of a largely empty ground on a Monday morning. For most, their first and last glimpse of England’s triumph would have been a few clips on the evening news. These days, of course, moments of note can spread around the world in seconds, mythologising in real time, and parodising almost as quickly.
It makes you wonder how Headingley 1981 would have been received in the social media age. “You Won’t Believe What Graham Dilley Said To Ian Botham During Their Epic Partnership,” reads a story on the Lad Bible. Someone will already have set the final wicket to the Titanic music. And before the day was out, every last detail - from Botham’s fish and chip supper the previous night to Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh’s cheeky 500-1 flutter - would have been mined for maximum shareable content.
And so, before the players had even left the field, some bright spark had altered the Ashes page on Wikipedia to add the line: “In August 2019, Jack Leach's glasses were melted down and added to the ashes inside the urn.” Within minutes, Leach’s famous glasses cloth already had its own popular Twitter account. Test sponsors Specsavers, meanwhile, wasted no time in announcing that Leach would be awarded free glasses for life.
If Ben Stokes was the action hero of England’s Headingley miracle, then before long it was clear that Leach was being cast in the role of his comedy sidekick. Even the dressing room appeared to have tapped into Leach’s endless comic potential: later, as the England players sat on the outfield reminiscing, Leach was invited to walk out to the crease and re-enact his match-tying single - the only run of his innings - to the uncontrollable mirth of his colleagues.
Afterwards, in the press conference, someone put it to Leach that his exploits had made him something of a cult hero. “That’s nice,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. It’s probably because I look like a village cricketer out there in my glasses, the bald head. Maybe people think: ‘That could be me!’ All the others look pretty professional.”
Perhaps there is a certain everyman appeal to Leach, one that appears certain to secure him the same sort of ironic Ashes fame as Gary Pratt briefly enjoyed in 2005: the regular bloke who achieves fleeting superhero immortality, and is thus fated to be tracked down and asked about it on every anniversary for the rest of their lives. You might point out that the idea of an elite athlete wearing glasses shouldn’t be quite as ridiculous as some people find it.
But then, perhaps that’s just an embittered speccy talking. Rather, the main problem with Leach’s newly-anointed cult hero status is that it grotesquely undersells a fine cricketer who has not lost any of his seven Tests for England, played an instrumental role in winning at least three of them, and whose most telling impact on this Ashes series may, remarkably, be still to come.
There’s a certain irony in that Leach’s two most significant moments in an England shirt have come with the bat. His 92 against Ireland as a nightwatchman probably saved England from defeat in that Test, and without his one not out at Headingley, the world would never have been treated to Stokes’ pyrotechnics. But Leach has also taken 18 wickets in three Tests in Sri Lanka, four key wickets at Lord’s a week ago as England pushed for victory, and in between just a lot of very tidy spells: subtle variations of pace and flight, turn where it’s available, relentless, parsimonious accuracy where it’s not.
Jofra Archer may have been England’s most spectacular bowler at Lord’s, but you could argue that Leach was almost as important. Had Australia’s batsmen been able to score freely at the other end, then Archer’s assault would not have been nearly as effective. Instead, Leach tied up the Nursery End too, wheeling away bowling maiden after maiden, maintaining the pressure that helped swing the momentum of the series.
As Leach openly admits, he expected to be watching this series at home. Instead, with two spinning tracks at Old Trafford and The Oval to conclude this series, he may yet play a pivotal role in the destination of the Ashes urn. “I think I have more to offer with the ball,” he said. “Hopefully I’m able to show that over the next couple of games.” And if he does, Leach may well be able to trade in his cult hero status for the real thing.