March 9, 2009

The myth of the elegant left-hander

Why does the world insist that left-hand batsmen are naturally elegant and graceful?

Elegance is as elegance does: Gower was genuinely graceful himself, but he thought the idea of the left-hander's innate grace was an illusion © AFP

As batsmen discover new strokes, new ways to get to the boundary (or into the stands), some of the old ones seem to have fallen off the charts, taking with them the words used to describe these. We no longer read of the elegant late cut or the stylish leg glance; instead we have the effective upper cut or the productive reverse sweep. It is not that grace has deserted the game and batsmen have put efficiency before charm, but in recent years a Mahela Jayawardene has become the exception, a visually pleasing batsman incapable of playing an ugly stroke.

Yet one kind of batsman continues to get a good press. If you are a left-hander, it is automatically assumed that you are graceful, artistic, delicate and all those wonderful things that romantics like to burden cricket with. This is one of the game's most common myths - that left-handedness is by itself the reason for grace and elegance.

In Right Hand, Left Hand, winner of the Aventis Prize foe Science Books in 2003, Chris McManus says that around 10% of the population and perhaps 20% of top sportsmen are left-handed. He makes the point that left-handers have the advantage in asymmetric sports like baseball, where the right-handed batter has to run anti-clockwise towards first base after swinging and facing to his left. Sometimes the asymmetries, he says, are subtle, as in badminton, where the feathers of the shuttlecock are arranged clockwise, making it go to the right, so smashes are not equally easy from left and right of the court. Sometimes, of course, the left-hander is at a total disadvantage, as in polo, where the mallet has to be held in the right hand on the right side of the horse, or in hockey, where the sticks are held right handed. No natural grace here.

It is the comparative rarity of the left-hander that gives the illusion of grace. David Gower, most graceful of batsmen, used that very word, "illusion", to describe the left-hander's apparent grace.

"The fact is," he once told an interviewer, "both (the right-handers and the left-handers) have been horribly misnamed because the left-hander is really a right-hander and the right-hander is really a left-hander, if you work out which hand is doing most of the work. So from my point of view, my right arm is my strongest and therefore it's the right hand, right eye and generally the right side which is doing all the work. So if there is anything about this, then the left-handers, as such, should be called right-handers."

"It's the top hand which is doing all the work. It appears there's an illusion about this aspect too... they talk about left-handers having grace. Not all of them do. Though Allan Border was a wonderful player, he was short on grace."

Brian Lara was thrilling to watch, though not quite pleasing in the Gower sense. But even if we include him among graceful left-handers since Woolley, the list is still rather limited: Pollock, Sobers, Gower, Lara, perhaps Alvin Kallicharran

When I met Graeme Pollock in South Africa, many years ago, he explained to me that he played tennis right-handed, but golf left-handed (he signed an autograph with his right hand). Garry Sobers, on the other hand, was left-handed in everything he did. I don't know what conclusions can be drawn from this. Perhaps the left-hander whose right hand is the stronger hand plays the top-hand shots like the drive better than most. And the one with the stronger left as bottom hand plays the shots square of the wicket, the cut and pull, better. And since there is no more beautiful stroke in the game than the cover-drive, left-handers who play this well look most attractive.

It was probably Neville Cardus who first placed left-handers in a different aesthetic category when he wrote thus of Frank Woolley: "His cricket is compounded of soft airs and fresh flavours. The bloom of the year is on it, making for sweetness. And the very brevity of summer is in it too, making for loveliness." In the same essay Cardus went on to say, "I can think of cricket by Woolley which has inexplicably found me murmuring to myself (that I might get the best out of it): 'Lovely are the curves of the white owl sweeping/ Wavy in the dusk lit by one large star'."

And then, perhaps embarrassed by his own purple prose, he added, "I admit, O reader, that an innings by Woolley has nothing to do with owls and dusk and starlight. I am trying to describe an experience of the fancy; I am talking of cadences, of dying falls common to all the beauty of the world." Ah well. It's all right then.

Between Woolley and Gower, the two greatest left-handers, Sobers and Pollock were natural timers of the ball and capable of both delicacy and savagery. Even a still photograph of Sobers driving communicates power and balance; genius was never far removed from anything he did. Pollock didn't have a great stance, as many have pointed out, but I will always remember Sunil Gavaskar's story about batting with him for the World XI. Pollock played what looked like a forward-defensive shot, and Gavaskar, the non-striker, alert to a single, called out "Wait". Pollock waited, but that was only because the ball had sped to the boundary! Pollock too was compared to Woolley when he made two Test centuries against Australia as a 19-year-old.

The effective left-hander is much more a common breed than the elegant one © PA Photos

Four of the five highest individual scores in Tests have been made by left-handers, two by Brian Lara who was thrilling to watch, though not quite pleasing in the Gower sense. But even if we include him among graceful left-handers since Woolley, the list is still rather limited: Pollock, Sobers, Gower, Lara, perhaps Alvin Kallicharran, who, if he had played tennis, would have been known as a touch player. India's Salim Durani batted with an apparent lack of effort - an important ingredient of elegance - and Sourav Ganguly has been described as having a lazy elegance, but again, these players were not in the Gower class.

But look at the left-handers, some of them great players, who were and are innocent of elegance - Border, Matthew Hayden, Clive Lloyd, Arjuna Ranatunga, Kumar Sangakkara, Chris Gayle, Sanath Jayasuriya, Justin Langer, Graeme Smith, Mark Taylor, Gary Kirsten, Bill Lawry, Marcus Trescothick, Aamer Sohail, Lance Klusener.

Left-handers play shots that right-handers do not play quite as easily, because more left-handers play right-arm medium-pacers bowling across their bodies from round the wicket than right-handers play left-arm bowlers. The not-quite-glance, not-really-a-hook that left-handers play fine off their hips is unique to them. Both Gower and Lara played it exceptionally well.

Ganguly didn't - but then he was a converted left-hander, someone who began that way so he could use his left-handed older brother's equipment. Sadiq Mohammad was a converted left-hander, whose older brother Hanif understood that as a left-hander Sadiq had a better chance of getting picked.

Too much has been made of the left-hander, and his alleged grace. A Gower was graceful because he was graceful, not because he was a left-hander. A Javed Miandad lacked grace not because he was a right-hander but because that was how he batted. One doesn't automatically presuppose the other.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • K. on March 11, 2009, 6:03 GMT

    Drsuso.Sorry bro,but even the most ardent lara fan will admit lara was woeful against raw pace.with tendulkar you actually remember the times he was hit because they are so few. with lara it was almost like he got hit every time he faced donald,akram and the genuine fast bowlers.i think akhtar bowled to lara just one ball in his career,in an ODI and almost killed lara in the process.And lara certainly wasnt at all "graceful or elegant against genuine pace(he always looked uncomfortable) as he was against medium pace and spin.As regards long innings the sydney double(wet outfield ,warne and co could hardly hold the ball) and the antigua big ones there was almost zero pressure with some 5 wickets falling in 3 days of the wi innings. But the main point is as the author mentions; and he has given several examples: It is a pure myth that left handers are elegant. The Hoopers,Azhars,Vishys,Laxmans,Mark waughs etc are FAR more elegant and graceful.

  • Rohan on March 11, 2009, 5:21 GMT

    @drsuso.Of course Tendulkar has been hit,but so have Richards and Bradman.But very infrequently. With Lara,Ganguly and was almost a regular occurence and not a rare occasion. What i meant was that lara,ganguly etc are far from graceful against extreme fast hostile bowling.Whereas Tendulkar at his peak in the '90s almost never got touched. Lara,Ganguly even in the '90s against say Donald and co.were distinctly weak and ungainly against real fast bowling(not the medium pace of say mcgrath or spin).Lara,ganguly used to keep trying to hook because their ducking/swaying abilities were extremely poor coupled with jumping around at the crease with poor balance.And certainly as far as "grace" and ability is concerned against Extreme pace bowling Tendulkar comes out way on top.

  • Peter on March 11, 2009, 4:11 GMT

    Its all in the numbers, there are more righties than lefties, so there will be more elegant righties than lefties. This is not to say the elegant left-hander is a myth. In the right dominated world they are fewer and far in-between, when one comes along he stands out, people take note. Especially if he is a run machine like Lara. Being a patron of elegant batting in the classical mold, I think that Lara, Gower, Kallicharran, Anwar, Neil Harvey do fit the bill. In recent years there has been a spate of lefties, the more elegant ones seem to be right handers that bat left, like Lara. I dont know what it is, this is something for the physiologists. With the onset of the one day game and 20/20 elegance is already on its way out. Most of the names called in the commentaries, left or right handed, to me are not really elegant. When I think elegant, I think Tom Graveney, Lawrence Rowe. Not even Gower and Lara can match these guys for grace. True elegance comes around only once in a blue moon

  • Susobhan on March 10, 2009, 16:51 GMT

    @Rohan1. Not completely agreed. Tendulkar has been also hit by Akhtari bouncer and has been hit several times and even in thebody in front of the stumps of a short pitched delivery(LBW incident). Most of the times Lara tried to pull or to get a bat to the bouncer whereas Tendulkar in most of the times try to duck. Lara is one of the all time greatest puller of the ball. Don't compare him with a novice puller like Ganguly. If we sum up elegance with grace with ability to play long innings under pressure, Lara will top the list.

  • Rohan on March 10, 2009, 13:05 GMT

    @drsuso. Agreed.The point is that "grace under pressure" is where it really counts. Seen Lara ,Ganguly etc against hostile,super fast short pitched bowling? Really sad. Hopping around at the crease like a cat on a hot tin roof,getting hit all the time(I've literally lost count of how many times Lara and Ganguly have been hit),extremely poor ducking/weaving abilities...generally extremely ungainly and totally lacking in any modicum of grace whatsoever.Although both used to murder spin. But like You said compactness does not necessarily mean grace. But surely getting the same result with the minimum of relative effort is an essential part of grace?

  • Kali Muthu on March 10, 2009, 12:50 GMT

    A very good article, lefthanders appear to be more graceful, in any game for that matter. There were some clumsiest lefthanders like Graeme Fowler to Chanderpaul..and even Mathew Hayden who lacked the grace that is normally the epitome of a Southpaw. Being hard hitting Southpaw does not mean you lack the elegance as in the case of the Big Cat, Graeme Pollock or Yuvi.

    Yet, being a right hander does not mean that you cannot be elegant. Some examples are Zaheer Abbas, Greg Chappell, Mark Waugh and above all our own Sachin and the Mozart of the Willow, Gundappa Vishvanath... I used to watch Vishy and even Sachin in the mirror and wondered if only they had wielded the willow the other way would have been absolute joy to behold

  • Susobhan on March 10, 2009, 8:12 GMT

    Besides the elegant and graceful lefties here are some boring(not elegant) lefties, this list is also not short: Strauss, Chanderpaul, Kirsten, Cook, Adams and there are many.. so it does not mean that lefties have the advantage of becoming more graceful. Amla is more graceful than Tendulkar but Tendulkar has more compact technique that necessarily does not mean that he has to be the most graceful player.

  • KUMARAVEL on March 10, 2009, 6:29 GMT

    @dar268 , excellent comment dude. Lefties' legside shots don't please the eye as much as their offside shots.I hated watching Ganguly playing leg side shots like flicks and glances,it was like the ugliest stroke ever.

  • Avi on March 10, 2009, 6:24 GMT

    Completely wrong about Ganguly, who is behind only God on the off-side, and whose silken strokes enthralled a nation. Also very harsh on Sangakkara, I suggest you watch his 192 v Australia at Hobart.

  • banibrata on March 10, 2009, 5:57 GMT

    -now,then,comes the most unfathomable unwitting and enigmatic question,that is why then tendulkar and lara are the best of the best of batsmen of this generation?-just bcoz of elegance???you think that is the prime factor???never ever !!!!-it is about producing strokes that others simply can not imagine of,for that matter guys !!!

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