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What is it about Australia's love affair with left-hand opening batsmen? Phillip Hughes is about to join that list in Johannesburg tomorrow. It makes me wonder if there is some sort of natural advantage in being a left-hander against the new ball. The proportion of left-handers who open the batting seems to be much higher than the total numbers of batsmen who make up the rest of the batting order. Is this some sort of Darwinian ‘natural selection’ at work, where left-handed opening batsmen seem to have evolved to have an advantage over right-handers?
Australia have a particularly rich heritage when it comes to left-handers at the top of the order. In recent times, I can think of Hayden, Langer, Jaques, Rogers, Katich, Gilchrist, Shaun Marsh and Warner. Going back a few years, we had Wessels, Wood, Wayne Phillips (the keeper), Mark Taylor and Elliott. I can only think of Slater, Geoff Marsh, Boon and Mark Waugh (in ODIs) who were regular right-hand openers. Just about every first-class team in Australia is top-heavy with lefties. Can it be pure coincidence or is there a theory worth exploring?
It can’t just be attributed to Australian-style pitches because around the world, left-handers still take up a high proportion of opening slots (relative to their total representation in the game). Sri Lanka has Jayasuriya, Tharanga, Vandort and Warnapura. Their latest opener, Paranavitana is also a left-hander but he must be wondering if there are any ‘advantages’ after he was dismissed for a first-ball duck on debut!
England have two of them at the top of the order now, Strauss and Cook. Trescothick enjoyed a long career flying that flag too. West Indies currently have Gayle and Devon Smith with Chanderpaul, Wavell Hinds and Lambert regularly opening in ODI cricket. New Zealand have Ryder and they’ve previously had Fleming, Richardson, Wright, Edgar and Greatbatch to add to that list.
The South Africans have always had left-handers at the top of their order. Going back to their re-admission to international cricket in 1992, Wessels, Gary Kirsten, Graeme Smith and even Klusener opened the batting in the shorter form of the game. Bangladesh have had a relatively short time in the game but I can recall a few left-handers opening the batting for them. In fact, their current openers are both left-handers, Iqbal and Kayes.
Curiously Pakistan and India have not had that many left-handed openers. Wonder why? Butt and Farhat are recent openers and we can go back to the Anwar-Sohail partnership for the next regular pairing. Gambhir leads the Indian list now but I can’t think of too many more recent examples other than Sadagoppan Ramesh earlier in the decade. Both countries’ left-handers also seem to be less wristy than the right-handers, preferring to flay the ball through the offside. Is this because the ball may not swing back into them in the subcontinent and therefore they have to learn to play square of the wicket through the off-side? I’m just guessing here so perhaps those who know local conditions a bit better can suggest why that may appear to be the case. It may just be perception.
Back to the issue though about why left-handers may be more successful at the top of the order: is it because most bowlers are encouraged to bowl right-arm outswing or legcutters (to be more effective against right-hand batsmen) and are therefore more prone to straying on to the pads of lefties? As a medium pace bowler myself (albeit, not a very good one!), I find it difficult to bowl to left-handers because my natural ball curves back into them and gets tucked away quite easily. With my action, as soon as I adjust my line to just outside off stump, the blasted thing stops swinging and it disappears through point or cover! The lbw law makes it harder to trap a left-hander too unless I can pitch in line and get late movement back in (note: this requires skill and therefore automatically discriminates against me).
It will be interesting to see if left-handers get more or less lbw verdicts (proportionately)? Perhaps some clever boffin who can crunch statistics can run a report on this question? On the flip side, left-handers will complain that they usually have to deal with more rough outside off-stump due to the higher proportion of right-armers bowling over the wicket.
I’m no closer to answering the original question about why it is that there seems to be more left-handed openers at the highest level of the game but there’s no doubt that they are over-represented. Australia has by far the highest ratio of any country and it’s too high to put it down to mere coincidence.
Any thoughts or theories as to why this might be the case? Perhaps some coaches can provide an insight – do they deliberately promote left-handers to open the innings to counter outswing bowling? Or is it just a case of natural evolution where only the fittest survive? Whatever the reason, they should be banned for life. I just hate bowling to them!
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in BrisbaneFeeds: Michael Jeh
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Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.