The left-handed advantage in cricket

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In November last year, New Zealand and Zimbabwe played a Test match at the Queens Sports Club in Bulawayo and of the 22 players on show, Daniel Vettori was the only left-handed batsman.

This is quite unusual as there is normally an oversupply of left-handers in international cricket.

In the recently concluded series in the Caribbean, there were seven left-handers in the combined top six of both teams for the last two tests. The West Indies had Kieran Powell, Darren Bravo, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Narsingh Deonarine, while Australia had David Warner, Ed Cowan, and Michael Hussey.

A look at the first eight teams in the Test rankings reveal that there are 15 left-handers in the 48 batsmen that make up their top six. And when you consider that only between 10 and 13 percent of the general population is left-handed, it is clear that they are overrepresented, running at more than 30% in that small sample.

The question is: why? Is there some quality inherent in left-handers that allow them to progress to the highest level of the game in relatively greater numbers than their right-handed brethren? Do the laws of the game favour them? Or is it just that bowlers are more adept at bowling to right-handers?

Maybe it is some combination of all three. Scientists say that the left-handers’ possession of right brain to left-side wiring gives them increased spatial awareness and the capacity to think and react quickly to objects in three dimensions. Skills, I am sure, that serve batsmen well when negotiating a cricket ball approaching them at high pace.

Also, the fact that a batsman cannot be given out LBW – the third most common form of dismissal – once the ball lands outside the leg stump, provides a disproportionate benefit to left-handed batsmen. A right-hander bowling over the wicket, which is the most common type of delivery faced, has to land his delivery in line with the stumps in order to gain an LBW verdict. Very few deliveries of this type will go on to hit the stumps because of the angle of the delivery and there often has to be deviation back towards the stumps for there to be any chance of LBW.

The right-handed batsman facing a left-hander bowling over the wicket will benefit similarly, but the prevalence of right arm bowlers means that he will face many more deliveries that place him at risk of being out LBW than his left-handed counterpart.

Furthermore, bowlers are not as comfortable, nor as proficient bowling left-handers. Getting out caught is the most common form of dismissal in cricket, and I would wager that batsmen are caught behind or in the slips more often than elsewhere in the field. Opening bowlers, especially, facilitate this type of dismissal by swinging the new ball away from the batsman.

Left-handers, however, do not face this type of delivery as often as other batsmen. This, I believe, is one reason there is such a proliferation of left-handed opening batsmen in Test cricket. England has two, as does Australia, while most other test nations have one.

Dale Steyn, the most lethal new-ball bowler going around, is considerably less effective against lefties. Experts say that the slight change of action that often occurs when bowling to left-handers is often enough to diminish or even eliminate the swing that the fast bowler coming over the wicket would normally generate. Bowling round the wicket – a tactic sometimes used against the left-hander – also results in a change of action and most bowlers are not as comfortable doing it.

Yet there are hazards that are particular to the left-handed batsman as well. The rough created outside the off-stump by the follow-through of the right arm bowler readily comes to mind. This can be a nightmare to southpaws if the opposition has bowlers capable of exploiting the vagaries that it can provide.

There is also a theory that lefties are disadvantaged by the ball slanting across them, a delivery the right-hander does not face as often. But I tend to disagree. A good player is not overly concerned about the angle of a delivery, rather it is when it deviates from its original path, especially when it does so late, that it poses particular danger.

On the whole, it is abundantly clear that the cricketing gods have bestowed greater blessings on the left-handed batsmen. It is in recognition of this fact that former Zimbabwean batsman Alistair Campbell, originally a right-hander, was induced by his father to bat the other way round.

When it is considered that batsmen like Brian Lara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Alistair Cook and Michael Hussey are all natural right-handers who bat left-handed, then coaches may want to contemplate encouraging their young right-handed charges to improve their chances of success by becoming southpaws.