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