Thursday, February 1st, 2024


The ability to decapitate the opposition’s top order or to turn a game that seems lost with your batting: both these skills are as much a matter of heart as physical skill and they will inevitably attract the respect of a cricketer’s colleagues. But Joe, by all accounts, is also highly regarded at New Road for his willingness to help others and for a presence that he brings to the dressing-room.

The Australian wicketkeeper, Wally Grout, said that whenever he saw Ken Barrington striding out to bat for England in a Test match there always seemed to be a Union Jack fluttering behind him. Anyone watching Joe Leach steam in from his favourite Diglis End on an early summer morning will quickly conclude that the bowler’s loyalties are no less plain or undivided. To adapt John le Carré’s line about Jim Prideaux in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Worcestershire is his love; when it comes down to it, no one suffers for her.

So much was obvious to me when I first saw Joe bowl in a County Championship match at Tunbridge Wells almost a decade ago, but the point was made again in the game against Leicestershire at Oakham School last July. The home side needed 238 to win and their chances of doing so were tissue-thin even before Josh Tongue returned from the Old Trafford Test to take five wickets on a grassy pitch. But Tongue had not arrived at Doncaster Close when Joe’s fifth ball of Leicestershire’s second dig induced Louis Kimber to attempt a rash drive and Gareth Roderick pouched the resulting edge. Immediately Joe rampaged joyously down the pitch, so great was his delight at having made the first breakthrough in what was a vital game in Worcestershire’s promotion season. Yet it is rare for him not to display some emotion on taking a wicket and I’m reminded of the occasion when a group of cricketers were watching Derek Underwood bowl for Kent. “Look,” said one of them, “Deadly’s still delighted when he gets someone out and he’s got over a thousand wickets.” “Yes,” replied a colleague drily, “that’s why he’s taken so many.” Kimber was Joe’s 429th first-class victim for Worcestershire and batsmen across England should be aware that he is nothing like sated.

Warm appreciation of such commitment is not confined to the stands at New Road. It must be reassuring for colleagues to walk out alongside someone upon whom they can absolutely rely – and let’s not fool ourselves that all cricketers are alike in that respect. But I imagine Joe has no use for the hyperbole of “110%” and suchlike; 100% is all he can give, so he gives that.

“Joe is the kind of man you want on your team because he’ll run through brick walls for you,” said Charlie Morris. “Tell him he can’t do something and he’ll come into his own. And he’s one of Worcestershire’s modern-day greats. Bowlers who have stayed at counties throughout their careers and taken the volume of wickets he has are few and far between. It’s an incredible achievement and not something that’s been matched by many other bowlers – one thinks of Jamie Porter at Essex – and it puts Joe among an élite. And you don’t do such things by chance; it comes from the ability to execute an outstanding skill-set over a long period of time and also by keeping yourself on the park.”

That skill-set is deceptively simple. The ball is delivered from wider than usual on the crease – I wonder how many coaches have told Joe to get closer to the stumps – and it arrows towards the batsman before either nipping back (for bowled and lbws) or seaming away to bring the wicketkeeper and slips into play. That pace is not such as to disturb a batsman’s bowel movements but it is quick enough. And there you have it. There are variations, of course, but the essentials are rather straightforward. The hidden art, though, is to become so adept that you can trust yourself to display such skills from April to September, even when you are facing some of the best cricketers in the world.

Joe knows what that that quest is like. He arrived at New Road as a middle-order batsman whose brisk medium pacers were good for a short spell before the new ball was due. In 2013 he notched his maiden first-class century, against Gloucestershire at Cheltenham, in only his eighth match but would have to wait until the following May before he took five wickets for Worcestershire in that game I watched at Tunbridge Wells. Indeed, he had begun the 2014 season with only 18 wickets against his name and eight of those had been taken for Leeds/Bradford MCCU. For some insight into what had happened over the winter we should let Daryl Mitchell take up the story…

“Joe began as a top five or six batsman and someone who could bowl a few overs in the middle of an innings – an Ian Austin type if you like,” he said. “I remember rocking up to Kidderminster one pre-season – the memory’s vivid because it was snowing and we were in a tent – and I was facing Leachy in the net. At that time he was someone you quite fancied facing because he was never going to hit you on the head and he wasn’t that quick. You thought you could climb into his bowling but suddenly he was two yards quicker and a genuine threat. I remember him running in through the snow and into the net and hitting the bat a lot harder.”

Over the next ten seasons and on some tough days Joe became the glue that held Worcestershire’s attack together.

“He’s been Mr. Consistency and I’m just glad I didn’t have to face him,” said Mitch. “He’s challenges both edges of the bat and he’s a threat to anyone with his movement off the seam. Bowling from where he does is his particular characteristic and he gets his strength from skidding it in and not getting a huge amount of bounce.”

Given the number of overs Joe was soon sending down, it would have been easy for him to neglect his batting. In other eras, he might have been encouraged to do so. Many of those celebrating this testimonial will recall the time when new-ball bowlers were obsessive solipsists, content to send down their 25 overs a day but unwilling to do much more than that. They might have slogged a few at the end of an innings or stopped the ball if it came near them, but anything else, least of all captaincy, was not their concern As for diving about, don’t be vulgar.

Predictably, though, and in tune with the changing demands made on professional cricketers, Joe didn’t let his batting go at all. There has been another century and 22 first-class fifties, many of them scored when Worcestershire were neck-deep in the swamp. He became the sort of batsman whose calculated hitting would wreck the analyses of seamers like himself. So it is a curious fantasy to imagine Leach the batsman trusting his eye and destroying the figures of Leach the bowler, the air turning blue as the ball disappears to improbable boundaries.

“He’s got some vital runs, particularly as a counter-attacking batsman,” said Mitch. “He’s never daunted by a situation although that can happen when you go in quite low-down and all the batters above you have failed. Not many of his fifties will have been scored when we were 400 for five: there’ll have come when we were, say, 160 for seven.”

The ability to decapitate the opposition’s top order or to turn a game that seems lost with your batting: both these skills are as much a matter of heart as physical skill and they will inevitably attract the respect of a cricketer’s colleagues. But Joe, by all accounts, is also highly regarded at New Road for his willingness to help others and for a presence that he brings to the dressing-room. Put simply, he was a leader before he was made captain and he has remained influential now that Brett D’Oliveira has succeeded him. And if that means reminding young cricketers of their professional responsibilities, so be it. But when their figures are X-rated or when they can’t spell “bat”, Joe will be there for them, too.

“Joe’s an excellent leader and he’s an integral part of Worcestershire,” said Charlie Morris. “He’s someone that players can go to if they need advice. He’s approachable and kind. He will no doubt have had opportunities to move at certain points during his career but he hasn’t taken them because he loves the club and that should be admired. I don’t think I would have achieved anything like as much as I did without his support and friendship. When I needed to remodel my action he was a massive emotional support. And he leads by his example. It doesn’t matter if he’s cramping and the opposition is 200 for one, he’ll still be running in.”

Moz makes a point I have skirted for perhaps too long: it’s almost certain that Joe could have left Worcestershire but he has chosen not to do so. Such loyalty has tended to become a devalued currency in recent seasons when players have moved counties with an ease that would have astounded their predecessors. (And it’s odd that sportspeople are almost the only folk accused of disloyalty. Few comments are passed when a journalist leaves one newspaper for a rival; then again, no one gives a toss.) It’s impossible to know how Joe’s career might have progressed had he gone elsewhere. He’s probably thought about it but doing it would be a very different matter. For at some stage, he might have been required to bowl against Worcestershire and how the hell could he have done that?

What Joe’s gained by staying at New Road cannot be seen on a bank balance nor even by his place on the mural of Worcestershire’s finest players, an honour that will be accorded him when he retires. Perhaps the best way for us to measure this cricketer’s personal fulfilment is to return to that early summer’s day I mentioned at the start of this piece…

It is evening now and Worcestershire have sealed a four-day victory deep in the final session. Joe is sitting with his team mates in the home dressing room and most players have a beer in their hands. It is one of those intimate and very private times that all cricketers cherish, especially after winning a County Championship match, for that remains the format they revere most of all. Quite soon, a couple of players will have to go out and speak to JC, Bradders and the rest of the media. But for the moment, players and coaches have the world to themselves. Joe looks around him. It’s weird that the faces have got younger this past year or so. Once it was Mitch, Moz and Shants; now it’s Dolly, Libs and Kash. But if the owners of the pegs change, the common purpose doesn’t. Indeed, the same spirit informed the careers of players like Jack Flavell, Martin Horton and Reg Perks. And so it is that when he looks round on such evenings Joe understands that he really couldn’t have been more fulfilled anywhere else. He smiles to himself and grabs another beer.

“His presence in the changing room is a masterclass of being a leader and driving himself and his team on no matter what the situation. The levels of care he shows to his team mates, the passion he displays and the humour he delivers (mostly self deprecating thankfully) make him a great bloke and someone you want on your team everyday of the week. This for me is why he is so worthy of this testimonial and every success that comes his way.”