Why Cricket Loves Left-Handers

Why Cricket Loves Left-Handers

Daniel Brigham celebrates cricket’s left-handers and asks what makes them so alluring.

It started with a honey-trap. Alec Stewart, at his home ground of The Oval, was opening the innings in the deciding Test of the 1992 summer. The foes were Pakistan, whose trickery with the ball had caused sniffiness and snobbery to spread through the English shires like rumours of a new out-of-town Tesco.

Stewart had lost his opening partner Graham Gooch but was pulling and punching England to a breezy start. Mike Atherton, solid at the other end, was presenting with Stewart two expressions of Englishness, one of understated stiff upper-lip, one of a General marching gung-ho into battle. As Pakistan prepared their trick Rameez Raja is pushed back to the square-leg boundary.

Wasim Akram, who had blown away England in the World Cup final just five months earlier, is cruising elegantly in. A left-arm whirl, a bouncer wide of off stump, Stewart, the impulsive puller that he is, puckers up and the ball flies to Raja. “Got it, quite safely,” says Richie Benaud in the commentary box. “And Stewart is going to be very, very unhappy about that. They drew him into the stroke with two men behind square-leg.”

It gets worse for England; Wasim is on one of his stealth rampages. Mark Ramprakash shuffles across his stumps like a penguin protecting its egg, but Wasim’s inswinger is too quick for him. Chris Lewis is undone by one that curves back in. Derek Pringle plays so late that Pakistan are celebrating before his bat finally jerks across to try and guard his already-broken stumps. Neil Mallender is bowled by a yorker from around the wicket, the ball dipping in like a seagull dive-bombing your ice cream. Then the perfect full stop to the innings: Devon Malcolm, the batting klutz, bowled missing a straight one.

Derek Pringle mugged off
Derek Pringle was a touch late on it

Wasim Akram, 6-67. England, 207 all out, go on to lose by 10 wickets (it was Waqar Younis’s turn to have some fun in the second innings, taking 5-52).

This wasn’t just a series loss, though. Something had shifted, at least in me, still in my infancy of watching this curious game. Cricket wasn’t cricket anymore; thanks to the left arm of Wasim, it was magic. Better than that, in fact: it was black magic. This game of Angus Frasers and Mike Gattings, of greying, tubbying men looking like blobs of Tipp-Ex on village greens, of elderly hat-wearers in silly ties nodding off in pavilions, this game now had a devilish interloper, a Beelzebub with a merciless left arm, regal looks, movie-star hair and the bewitching ability to manipulate a cricket ball. What kid wouldn’t fall for that?

A merciless left arm, regal looks, movie-star hair
A merciless left arm, regal looks, movie-star hair

They say children want to emulate their heroes. Well, it was no different for this 10-year-old. The trouble was, no one had any advice if your sporting hero was left-handed and you were incontrovertibly, irritatingly right-handed. Months of trying to bowl left-arm led only to frustration and family acrimony in back-garden games. Finally, sadly, the experiment to emulate Wasim was abandoned; life as a generic, typical right-hander was sullenly accepted.

But Wasim had soldered a lasting impression: left is best. Not just best, but most interesting, most arresting, most aesthetically pleasing. So why does left-handedness apparently pose an advantage in cricket? Why does it appear to be even more of an advantage when it comes to batsmen? Why do some right-arm bowlers bat left-handed? And why have England, sorry England, lagged behind other countries in producing great lefties?

***

The Incas, open-minded lot that they were, believed that left-handed people were enlightened. With that attitude they’d probably have been world-beaters at cricket. However, for many centuries, that’s about as good as it got for lefties.

While it’s estimated that between 8 and 15 per cent of the Earth’s human population is born left-handed (interestingly, most other primates are split 50/50 between left- and right-handers), it has taken centuries for societies to accept them. They have been burnt as witches, had their left hands tied behind their backs and been beaten into using their right hands. Even the very word “left” shows the suspicion it aroused: the Latin translation for it means sinister, while the French word – gauche – means awkward or naive. To this day, 2,500 left-handers are killed every year because they’ve used equipment designed for right-handed people.

The ancient Incas believed left-handers to be enlightened
The Incas’ attitude to left-handers would have made them cricketing world-beaters

It’s not all bad for lefties, though. Five of the last seven US presidents have been southpaws, as well as the rather brainy trio of Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Leonardo da Vinci. In sport, left is often romanticised: in football, No.10 is recognised as the playmaker, because the inside-left (No.10) was perceived as the more attacking player than the inside right (No.8); you hear about cultured left – not right – feet. Tennis has been enhanced by John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Rafael Nadal, Rod Laver, Monica Seles and Jimmy Connors. Boxing’s had Joe Calzaghe, Manny Pacquiao, Marvin Hagler and Pernell Whitaker, while 25 per cent of professional baseballers are left-handed.

So, to cricket. Of the 396 players listed in The Cricketers’ Who’s Who 2015, which takes into account everyone on the county squad lists at the start of the season, exactly 100 of them are left-handed batsmen – well above the proportion of left-handers you find in society. Of bowlers, 65 are lefties – a number more in keeping with the overall proportion.

Keaton Jennings is one of a disproportionate number of successful left-handers on the county circuit
Keaton Jennings is one of a disproportionate number of successful left-handers on the county circuit

This trend continues when you look at the international record books. Of the 12 batsmen to have passed 10,000 Test runs, five of them bat left-handed: Kumar Sangakkara, Brian Lara, Shiv Chanderpaul, Allan Border and Alastair Cook.

Again, it’s a different story with bowlers: Wasim Akram was, until he was knocked out by Jimmy Anderson, the only left-armer in the top 10 Test wicket-takers with 414. Next is Dan Vettori, on 362 and in joint 18th place overall. England’s best, Derek Underwood, is sixth on the list but, with 297 wickets, is only 30th overall. Meanwhile, England have never had a left-arm quick to reach three figures: Bill Voce was the closest with 98, and he remains a mere support act to his Nottinghamshire and Bodyline colleague Harold Larwood (who took 20 fewer Test wickets but was, of course, a rightie).

Bill Voce is England's most successful left-arm quick, with 98 Test wickets
Bill Voce is England’s most successful left-arm quick, with 98 Test wickets

However, things may be changing: with fast bowlers, left is the new right. Suddenly, there are new Wasims popping up across the continents. England faced three of the best in 2015: New Zealand’s Trent Boult and Australia’s Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc, while Pakistan have Junaid Khan, Rahat Ali, Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz.

England’s inclusion of lefties David Willey, Reece Topley and Tymal Mills in their limited-overs squads, as well as flirting with Mark Footitt, shows they are also becoming aware of the advantages left-arm pacemen can bring.

Pakistan have no shortage of left-arm fast bowlers
Pakistan have no shortage of left-arm fast bowlers

It wasn’t always like this, though. As in society, lefties often struggled for acceptance in the early days of cricket. So let’s take a step back in time.

***

On May 12, 1790, William Bullen – a noted fast bowler and biffer with the bat in the late-18th century – was run out at Lord’s Old Ground. The wicket handed victory to “Left-handed”, who beat “Right-handed” by 39 runs in a first-class fixture that did exactly as it said on the tin: pitting right-handed players against left-handed players.

The lefties had a rather stellar side, with the inclusion of three great Hambledon cricketers: James Aylward, who for 43 years held the record for the highest first-class score of 167 (for Hampshire against an England team at Sevenoaks in 1777 – he was finally bowled by Bullen); the dashing – in looks, as in bat – wicketkeeper Thomas Sueter, who stood up to the stumps to fast bowlers and is credited with being the first batsman to step down the pitch to attack; and demon bowler David Harris – who suffered from gout in later life and brought an armchair onto the field to sit on between deliveries.

perhaps bowling left-arm was thought a little exotic or satanic in the 18th century
Bowling left-arm was thought a little exotic or satanic in the 18th century

Harris batted left-handed, and he bowled (underarm, of course) with fearsome pace and was rated as the best of his day. There was a slight hitch for a left-handed team, though: Harris used his right hand to bowl. Indeed, he was one of three bowlers used by Left-handed in the match, and the other two – Robert Clifford and William Brazier – also bowled right-arm. It appears that the left policy only applied to batting (perhaps bowling left-arm was thought a little exotic or satanic in the 18th century).

There were five more first-class fixtures over the next century featuring a left-handed team – three against Right-handed and two against MCC. The final clash was in May 1870, when Left-handed were beaten by an innings and 8 runs by Right-handed at Lord’s. WG Grace took nine wickets for MCC but, more interestingly for our purposes, Left-handed used four bowlers in the match, and none was a right-armer: Nottinghamshire’s slow left-armer James Shaw (who, of course, batted right-handed); George Wootton, who bowled off just two paces; George Howitt, who bowled so fast he reportedly once sent a bail flying 60 yards; and Tom Emmett, a fast bowler who claimed he invented a delivery that pitched on leg stump and then broke towards off. He called it the “sostenuter”, a word which seemed to mean something only to him.

Emmett is a helpful link here as, seven years later, he would be involved in something far more memorable: the first Test match, at Melbourne. He was one of two lefties on England’s team – the other was captain and slow left-armer James Lillywhite Jnr, who had also played in the final Left-handed match in 1870.

Frank Allan: fine left-arm bowler and agricultural show devotee
Frank Allan: fine left-arm bowler and agricultural show devotee

The Australians also had a leftie pair: fast-medium bowler John Hodges and Tom Kendall, who varied his pace between slow and medium and took 7-55 in England’s second innings, leading Australia to their 45-run victory. There was almost a third: Frank Allan, one of the finest bowlers of the 19th century, had been picked to play but decided to visit an agricultural show instead.

In a quirky reversal of what would become the norm, neither side fielded a recognised left-handed batsman. Indeed, the first 44 Test centuries were all made by right-handed batsmen. But it wasn’t long before Aussies Clem Hill and Joe Darling showed the cricketing world that lefties could also make runs. Darling broke the duck with 101 in the first Test against England at Sydney in 1897. (Out of the 3,843 Test centuries scored up to the end of September 2015, southpaws accounted for 1,055 of them – almost 30 per cent. For the first 50 years of Test cricket, that figure was down at 14 per cent.)

England, however, took a little longer to embrace the left. It wasn’t until February 1912 – 35 years after the start of Test cricket – that an English left-handed batsman hit a century, when the great Frank Woolley, batting at No.7, struck an unbeaten 133 in England’s first-innings 324 to set up a victory at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Frank Woolley: England first left-handed centurion
Frank Woolley: England first left-handed centurion

For decades Woolley remained something of an outlier. While Garry Sobers, Neil Harvey, Arthur Morris and Bert Sutcliffe were feted either side of the Second World War, England’s left-handed stocks remained curiously low post-Woolley until John Edrich finally restored some leftie batting pride in the 1960s.

While Alastair Cook may, at the end of his career, lay claim to a place in an all-time England XI, his country and India remain the only international teams that don’t have a left-handed batsman as an obvious pick in a greatest XI side. Australia have Morris, Harvey, Allan Border and Adam Gilchrist, West Indies Sobers and Brian Lara, Pakistan Saeed Anwar, South Africa Graeme Smith and Graeme Pollock. New Zealand Sutcliffe (Richard Hadlee would get in only for his right-arm bowling, not his left-handed batting), Sri Lanka Sangakkara, Sanath Jayasuriya and Arjuna Ranatunga, while Bangladesh’s leading Test run-scorer is the left-handed Tamim Iqbal. While there may be romantic shouts for David Gower in an England XI, right-handers Wally Hammond, Kevin Pietersen, Colin Cowdrey and Ken Barrington surely get first refusal in the middle order.

Does David Gower make an all-time England XI?
Does David Gower make an all-time England XI?

What explains England’s traditional aversion to left-handers, which has only really been eroded in the last 30 years, with Gower, Cook, Andrew Strauss, Graham Thorpe and Marcus Trescothick all emerging to redress the balance? Mike Selvey, writing in the Guardian, has a theory: “Batting at its best ought to be a top-hand-dominant game … none more so than Adam Gilchrist, whose right hand could scarcely get higher up the handle. With dominant eye playing its part, batting left-handed is actually the logical way to bat. At one time, I suppose, it was discouraged as not conforming to coaching stereotypes, in much the same way that left-handed children were said to have had their hands strapped in Victorian schools as discouragement.”

This could also explain why the likes of Cook, Lara and Chanderpaul are naturally right-handed, and why so many of the current England team bowl right-handed but bat left: Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali.

Just three of the current England team who bowl right-handed and bat left
Just three of the current England team who bowl right-handed and bat left

Science may also have an answer. Dr Nicolas Cherbuin, a neuroscientist at the Australian National University in Canberra, led a 2006 study into the differences in brain patterns between left- and right-handed people. One of the conclusions was that lefties can think faster when playing sport, with the transfer of information between each side of the brain quicker in left-handed people. In cricket terms, this could mean that left-hand batsmen are quicker at picking up line and length and working out how to adapt to each delivery.

There may also be a societal reason. “Left-handed individuals live in a largely right-handed world,” says Cherbuin. “Therefore they get a lot of practice understanding how right-handed people do things. In contrast, right-handed people have a lot less practice with left-handed individuals because there are fewer of them and for a long time they had to change or hide their handedness, and even when they don’t they still have to mostly work with tools and an environment designed for right-handers.

There are very few great right-arm bowlers as comfortable bowling to lefties as they are at righties – Gilchrist famously got in a tangle against Andrew Flintoff in 2005 because he’d never faced a bowler so good at hunting down left-handed batsmen – and this could give southpaws a distinct advantage. It’s also worth noting that left-handed people are under-represented in sports that don’t involve direct combat, such as darts, golf and snooker, where the advantage of surprise is taken away.

***

But what about the bowlers? Why does Wasim Akram stand out as such a freak in a huge crowd of right-arm bowlers, and why does watching Boult and Johnson bowling still feel like something out of the norm, while watching a left-handed batsman feels perfectly normal?

Why are the likes of Trent Boult still a relatively unfamiliar phenomenon?
Why are the likes of Trent Boult still a relatively unfamiliar phenomenon?

Only five left-armers have forced their way onto the list of the 29 bowlers to have taken over 300 Test wickets. Like the 65 out of 396 county players who are left-arm bowlers, these figures are close to mirroring the proportion of lefties in society. That proportion decreases if we look once again at each country’s greatest XIs, where it’s really only Wasim, Vettori, Vinoo Mankad, Chaminda Vaas and Underwood who would be selected as bowlers.

Most startling, perhaps, is the lack of left-arm pace in the Caribbean, the natural home of fast bowlers. While Sobers and Alf Valentine fly the slow left-arm bowlers’ flag for West Indies, Pedro Collins sits behind 14 right-arm fast bowlers as their only left-arm quick to have taken over 100 Test wickets. Remarkably, on Collins’ Test debut in 1999 he was the first left-handed quick to represent his country since Bernard Julien, who had last played a Test 22 years earlier.

So why aren’t left-arm bowlers as successful as left-handed batsmen? Kevin Pietersen has spoken about the angle of Mitchell Johnson’s delivery causing problems that batsmen aren’t used to facing – especially at such pace – so surely left-arm bowlers have the same element of unfamiliarity that left-handed batsman enjoy?

Mitchell Johnson brutally highlighted the threat of a quick left-armer
Mitchell Johnson brutally highlighted the threat of a quick left-armer

Cherbuin has another theory, and it’s all down to fine motor skills. These skills control finger- and hand-movement, which is critical in holding and releasing a cricket ball. They are controlled by the opposite side of your brain, which makes it tough for people to bowl with their “wrong” hand.

“In contrast,” says Cherbuin, “while both batting and bowling also rely on what we refer to as gross motor skills – the broad movements of body, shoulders and arms – this type of movement contributes a greater proportion of the action in batting. Importantly, this type of movement is controlled mostly equally from the two sides of your brain when controlling legs and arms on both sides of the body and therefore is not as influenced by handedness.”

And this is where the difference lies: bowling is essentially a single-hand activity, while batting is bi-manual. In single-hand activity the side of the brain controlling the active hand tends to send signals to the other side, which inhibits movements in the other limb. But the reverse happens with bi-manual movements, with the side of the brain controlling the dominant hand sending signals to the other side to synchronise the movement. This means people who are naturally right-handed, or more mix-handed, can bat left-handed, but such a reversal isn’t possible in bowling. As if the game wasn’t already dominated by batsmen, there’s just no way bowlers can compete with that.

***

The likes of Wasim Akram, Dan Vettori, Tony Lock, Alan Davidson, Mitchell Johnson, Alf Valentine and Derek Underwood may be destined to remain beautiful freaks in a sport dominated by right-arm bowlers, right-handed batsmen and right-handers masquerading as left-handed batsmen.

Perhaps it is best that way. Who knows how many young fans cricket has gained through the simple fact of Johnson, Boult and Starc being left-armers, their non-conformity and unconventionality enticing a new generation of fan. Even left-handed batsmen come in unusual shapes, sizes and techniques: which traditional coach would teach a young batsman to crouch like Chanderpaul, pick up like Lara or tee off like Gilchrist?

Even England – that nation of compliance, fearful of change and unfamiliarity – is finally accepting what countries such as Sri Lanka, West Indies, Australia and Pakistan have known for decades: that left is best in a sport frequently too right for its own good.

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