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CRICKET: THE RISE OF THE LEFT WING

Updated August 13, 2017
Illustration by Feica
Illustration by Feica

In the recently concluded Champions Trophy, Pakistan’s bowling attack was notable for its influx of left-handed pacers, with four in the squad and at least two playing regularly. Similarly, the Test side had routinely gone in with three left-arm pacers over the last year.

So what is behind this spate of lefties? Speaking abstractly, being left-handed can be an advantage, particularly in certain sports. For example, a recent article noted that seven of the 16 top world fencers are left-handed, as are five of the top 25 international tennis players and four of Europe’s 10 best table tennis payers. Indeed, sports which see individual match-ups (think also of tennis, cricket and baseball) being left-handed can be a major advantage.

Conventional wisdom suggests that with most players being right handed, a left-handed opponent suddenly becomes a bigger challenge just because its unusual. Indeed, the coaches of the great Italian fencer Edoardo Mangiarotti and tennis great Rafael Nadal both trained their right handed students to become left handed, because of the advantage they believed it would bestow.

Pakistan seems to have an embarrassment of left-arm quicks to draw upon. What’s brought this about?

But some scientists wanted to investigate further. A French neuroscientist, Guy Azemar, put forth the thesis that lefties have an innate advantage in what he called ‘opposition sports’ — those with individual battles. He claimed that lefties have a more symmetrical distribution of brain functions across the two hemispheres of their brain, and thus have better control over the parts of their brain that control movement and space management. 

Two other researchers, Charlotte Faurie and Michel Raymond, of the University of Montpellier, decided to test the leftie-advantage theory by wondering if it would show up in analysis of primitive combat, when humans fought hand to hand. The two studied nine primitive societies across the globe, and found that societies with higher murder rates had more lefties. The logic was that in societies with more violence, lefties were more likely to come out on top. 

The advantage of being left-oriented also shows up in some animals. For example, when a predator attacks a school of fish, most would go in one direction but the left-oriented ones would go in a different direction. While this move risks losing the protector of numbers, it is likely to surprise the predator which is more likely to continue pursuing the minority.

But despite these innate advantages, there is plenty of historical precedent to show that being left-handed was viewed as an undesirable thing in many cultures across time, and such social attitudes were still prevalent when cricket came around. In fact, cricket is distinguished amongst most sports in how conservative it has been over history. For example, one reason Ranjitsinhji was considered a revolutionary batsman was because he would play on the leg-side, an option encompassing half the field that batsmen had previously avoided, because as cricket writer Rahul Bhattcharya noted, “batsmen simply did not play across the line.”

Given cricket’s perennial obsession with orthodoxy, it is perhaps not surprising that being left-handed wasn’t something that was embraced too much. But in recent years, the sport — like all others — has started becoming far more efficient and it is perhaps no surprise that we have seen the number of lefties increase. For example, a guitar website recently noted that the influx of left-handed guitarists in the music world could partly be attributed to more information and awareness, which meant that many left-handers found the right equipment and training rather than learning to play with the other hand. Similarly, it could perhaps be likely that in cricket more coaches are amenable to teaching lefties rather than changing their style, as might have happened a few years ago.

But ultimately, perhaps the greatest influence and reason for the rise of the lefties is the emergence of having a hero to emulate. In his History of Pakistan cricket, Osman Samiuddin noted how before the arrival of Imran Khan on the scene, Pakistan’s domestic cricket was dominated by spinners. But after his exploits as a world-class fast bowler, Pakistan began to produce far more pacers, as evidenced in the change in domestic records.

A similar impact can be seen in the emergence of Wasim Akram, the best left-handed fast bowler the game has ever seen. Before Wasim Akram’s debut, only six men had played for Pakistan while being left-handed pacers. Only one, Azeem Hafeez, played more than five tests. Since Akram, Pakistan has had 10 left-handed fast bowlers. Two of those who were Akram’s contemporaries were also not quite pacers — Saleem Jaffer and Ejaz Ahmed. But the eight since all debuted after 1994 — 10 years into Wasim’s career. In other words, eight in 17 years after six in 33.

In fact, Wasim’s impact can be seen beyond Pakistan, too. In the 101 years before his first Test, only 30 left-handed bowlers played more than 10 Tests. In the 33 years since, 33 leftie pacers have played 10+ Tests. 

Before Wasim Akram’s debut, only six men had played for Pakistan while being left-handed pacers. Only one, Azeem Hafeez, played more than five tests. Since Akram, Pakistan has had 10 left-handed fast bowlers.

But it’s not just Wasim alone. Before he became famous as ‘the left arm of God’, the moniker used to be employed for Alan Davidson, an Australian pacer who debuted in 1953. In 72 years of Test cricket before ‘Davo’, only 12 leftie pacers had played 10+ Tests. After him and until Wasim came along, that number became 17 in 32 years. Clearly, the arrival of one successful example leads to others following in their wake.

India, for example, played eight leftie pacers in 67 years since its debut, with only two playing 10+ Tests. But from 1999 to 2006 (perhaps inspired by Wasim as well), they gave debuts to four left-armed pacer, including Zaheer Khan — arguably their best pacer ever. Similarly, Sri Lanka played one leftie pacer in 12 years before Chaminda Vaas, and have given debuts to nine leftie pacers since, with three playing 10 Tests or more.

The Kiwis had seven leftie pacers across 62 years, before the emergence of Murphy Su’a and Geoff Allot in the mid-90s saw a further seven given debuts in the next two decades, with five playing 10+ Tests. 

In contrast, teams like England, South Africa and West Indies never found a great left-armed pacer, and thus despite giving sporadic debuts never saw a line of leftie pacers that seem to emerge in other teams once a role model emerged. 

Of course, it would be fallacious to be too deterministic here. It is likely that Wasim Akram’s influence cut across teams, and that it was likely a combination of reasons that led to the spate of lefties in cricket. 

But when it comes to Pakistan, the impact can’t be underestimated. Hasan Cheema, manager of the PSL’s Islamabad United, reckons that not only did Wasim inspire a lot of left-handed pacers, but that he also influenced potential batsmen to convert into bowlers. Wasim’s career started just as another Wasim’s was ending — Wasim Raja was a mercurial, left-handed middle order bat. He was also the third leftie to play more than 10 Tests for Pakistan in the middle order. Soon after his retirement, the leftie Asif Mujtaba came into the side. But from 1990 onwards, only one left-handed middle order batsman — Asim Kamal — played 10 Tests for Pakistan. 

Hasan Cheema posits that after the success of the Imran Khan-led 1980s side, all domestic sides wanted pacers and many wanted left-arm ones. Talented players who were left-armed had more incentive to become pacers than batsmen, which seems to bear out in the low number of leftie batsmen vs pacers in the team since.

And if we needed any further confirmation, one only needs to ask the Pakistan bowlers themselves. Almost all of them credit Wasim Akram as their inspiration, and during the PSL one often sees lefties from any of the five sides approaching Wasim for advice and tips. 

Given that Pakistan has at least one future great in Mohammad Amir, and several other exciting lefties like Rumman Raees, Mohammad Irfan and Junaid Khan, there remain many heroes for youngsters to keep trying to emulate. It feels safe to say that it’s unlikely the left wing of Pakistani pace will suffer the same fate as the once vibrant left wing of Pakistani politics.

UPCOMING LEFTIES

Rumman Raees
Imran Khan Jr
Usman Khan Shinwari
Yasir Jan
Shahin Shah Afridi

The writer tweets @karachikhatmal

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 13th, 2017