When left is right
Every time I go back to play at my home club in Delhi, I see an ever-increasing crop of left-arm pacemen, young, eager, and ready to set the world on fire. Gone is the time when these kids wanted to be a Kapil or a Srinath; now, Zaheer, Ashish Nehra, Irfan Pathan, even RP, are their heroes.
Cricket is heavily biased in favour of left-handers, whether batsmen or bowlers. About 30 per cent of batsmen are left-hand players, and there are more than a few left-arm spinners about - including part-timers - but left-arm seam bowlers are a rare (and generally precious) commodity. It's not every day that you get to face a left-arm seamer. And a left-arm quick who can bring the ball back into the right-hand batsman is even harder to find. This has been a rare Test series, one where we have had three quality left-arm swing bowlers in action in conditions conducive for swing bowling.
When you're facing a left-arm seamer you immediately have to open up your stance a bit, from the toes to the upper body, to have a complete view of the bowler and the path of the ball. It is one of the few instances in cricket when you are advised not to stay side-on, for if you remain side-on you'll only be able to see the bowler from the corner of your eye, and that would impair your judgment. So, before he has bowled a ball, the bowler has forced the batsman to make an adjustment.
Left-arm seam seamers have the special gift of making the straight ball look like it has done something when it slants across a batsman. It's just the angle taking the ball away from the right-hander, but from 22 yards away it feels like it's going away rather than just travelling in a straight line. In these conditions the batsman can always do with a bit of extra bounce, as it was when India played in Australia in 2003-04. Nathan Bracken and our left-arm bowlers consistently made the ball hold its line, and even dart back in, but as a batsman you could always trust the bounce to take it over the top of the stumps if you misread an inswinger for a straight one.
Also, you can live with the ball that slants across, as the leg-before option is ruled out. If a ball of this sort is going on to hit the stumps, it invariably pitches outside leg stump; and if it pitches in line, the angle takes it away from the stumps.
But as soon as the ball starts swinging in to the right-hander, in the air and off the surface, a host of new possibilities open up. As a batsman your first instinct is to get the pad out of the way, because the leg-before is a left-arm swing bowler's bread-and-butter dismissal. So you tend to play inside the line, and sometimes even with a short stride forward to ensure that you play with the bat.
It's easier to go a lot more forward, and probably outside the line, to a right-arm inswing bowler, but you can't do that with a left-armer for two reasons. One, since you're standing with your stance open, it's almost impossible to go that far across. Second, and more important, the natural swing tends to finish within the stumps because of the angle the ball is bowled from. A right-arm inswing bowler tends to bowl from wider of the crease and the angle takes the ball down the leg side, but that's not the case with the left-arm bowler.
The toughest part of facing a left-armer is when the ball is swinging in the air and off the surface. This allows the bowler to pitch it way outside the off stump. Sometimes it shapes back in and on other occasions it just holds its line. Both can be dangerous. Under normal circumstances, if the ball is pitched way outside off stump it doesn't come in enough after pitching to be lethal. It's a fine line, though. An inch to one side is too much, and an inch to the other puts it in the danger zone. We saw the batsmen feel for the ball a lot in the last two Tests. It wasn't because they couldn't judge the line; it was more because they were worried about these crucial inches.
If all this isn't complicated enough, there's more in the left-arm seamer's armoury. Once the ball gets a little old, he can come around the stumps and cause problems of a different sort. The law that says "the ball doesn't come in if it pitches this far outside the off stump" doesn't hold true anymore because of the point of delivery. The natural angle takes the ball into the batsman. So even if it doesn't really swing, the angle is enough to put doubts in the batsman's mind.
And then, if you can get one to hold its line, like the delivery from Zaheer to Michael Vaughan in the first innings at Trent Bridge, it is just too good to handle. The ball did not swing a lot in the air, but the angle forced Vaughan to play at it, only for him to find it straightening after pitching.
We haven't seen too much reverse swing in this series, but if it starts happening, these left-arm bowlers will become even more lethal. And given that India have two, that should be good news for them.
Former India opener Aakash Chopra is currently playing league cricket in Staffordshire, and for the MCC