<
>

Cheers to England's leftist leaning

Alastair Cook had to battle through the early stages Getty Images

So vitriolic and unrelenting has been the scorn heaped on English cricket lately, much of it richly deserved, this column has felt morally obliged to resist weighing in. Why hit a chap when he's down? Why not accentuate the positive, neutralise the negative, and then, given the vaguest hint of improvement, bang on about cycles and luck and media hysteria and the ruddy Twittersphere and sodding Piers Morgan - and how, naturally, you always knew things weren't that bad?

So here's the incredibly good news: English cricket, unlike the nation, is finally overcoming its anti-leftist phobia. Not only were the Lord's top three all southpaws, a mere four of the entire XI were not.

To comprehend the significance of that top three, consider this: in England's first 120 Tests, from 1877 until 1914, just three left-handers appeared in those vertiginous berths, two of them, Sep Kinneir and Bobby Peel, just once - the latter as nightwatchman. Now suck on this: among England's 95 one-Test wonders you'll find 18 left-hand batsmen and 14 left-arm bowlers, a highly suspicious proportion, testifying to that flaky image. There's plenty more incriminating evidence where that came from.

Leftie-phobia, of course, has ancient roots. The English word "left" derives from lyft - lazy, useless or weak, only two of which apply unquestionably to our present Labour Party. The French alternative, gauche? Clumsy, awkward, naive or naff. Medieval left-handers were apparently possessed by Satan - hence the modern definition of "sinister", a variation on sinistra - Latin for left. Christianity is hopelessly prejudiced: the right hand makes the sign of the cross and gives the blessing. In Britain, left-handers are cack-handers; in Australia, mollydookers; Italians call them mancini - crooked.

According to some academics, 8% of the globe are southpaws. According to others it's double that. Either way, it might startle you that four of the five designers of the original Macintosh computer were cack-handed. Ditto 25% of baseball's active major leaguers - who play a game unwittingly designed for lefties - and nearly 40% of the planet's leading tennis players. Martina Navratilova, Rod Laver, John McEnroe and Rafael Nadal are all mollydookers. When 90,000 Britons took a BBC-sponsored IQ test in 2006, lefties edged it. Other clever mancini include Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney, not to mention Chewbacca.

Despite their sneaky advantages - obliging bowlers to alter their line, captains to adjust fields, fielders to commute between balls - English distrust of left-hand batsmen goes back centuries; a stark contrast to that ceaseless lust for slow left-arms. William Scotton's 14 innings in the Test top three lasted 39 years as the national record before Frank Woolley passed him in 1925. Woolley's eventual 28 was not beaten until 1958, by Peter Richardson, whose eventual 55 would be outstripped by John Edrich (120 between 1963 and 1976) but not matched again until David Gower in 1990. Not until 2001 did Mark Butcher match Richardson.

"Nearly 40% of the planet's leading tennis players. Martina Navratilova, Rod Laver, John McEnroe and Rafael Nadal are all mollydookers. When 90,000 Britons took a BBC-sponsored IQ test in 2006, lefties edged it"

Only four left-handers in 124 years, in other words, were deemed worthy of 30 or more Tests in the first three. Over the same period, drawn from a much smaller base, eight Australians (plus Kepler Wessels) were so trusted.

Resistance has softened of late, with Butcher's aggregate supplanted by Marcus Trescothick (142 innings), then Andrew Strauss (177), then Alastair Cook (202) - openers all. More tellingly, of the 18 men who have batted 35 or more times at first drop, so long the kingpin's preserve, the only lefties have been Butcher, Gower and Edrich. Only Gower wasn't an accomplished opener.

Let's widen the binoculars. Thirty left-handers have clocked up 1000-plus Test runs at 45, headed by Graeme Pollock (60.97) with openers outnumbered two to one. Four are English by birth (Gary Ballance shouldn't take offence: rearing matters in this context): Cook, Maurice Leyland, Phil Mead and Eddie Paynter, of whom only Cook has been capped since 1939. Of the leading dozen by average, only Paynter, Pollock and Garry Sobers have not taken guard over the past 20 years. Sure, cite chief executive's pitches, but might this also reflect a society less prone to discriminating on the basis of manual preference?

So in this era of switch-hitters and ambidextrous bowlers, is left the new right? No, but the trend is promising. In Tests, four members of the 10,000 Club are left-handers - 36.36%; if Cook can afford the entrance fee, it'll be 41.67%. Eight of the 23 with 1000-plus runs at 48-plus in the past ten years have been lefties - nearly 35%. Of the 20 with at least 1000 at 47-plus in the past five years, nine have been so inclined - 45%.

Given that the highest-ranked left-armer is Wasim Akram (ninth with 414 wickets), followed by Daniel Vettori (19th) and Chaminda Vaas (21st), contemporary bowling stats are far more radical - and unflattering to the Poms. Of the 40 left-armers with 100 wickets, 12 have been seamers and 12 have served St George, spinners all. No English quick has come close to Bill Voce's 98 - and the last of those arrived nearly 70 years ago. The global shift, conversely, has been seismic.

In the 1970s, a couple of subtle southpaws led the scalpers, Derek Underwood (202) and Bishan Bedi (196); of the other seven lefties with more than 50 (compared with 30 right-armers), the most penetrative was Karsan Ghavri (87). The following table illustrates how far we've come:

Left-armers among top 30 Test wicket-takers
1980s: Ravi Shastri (12th), Iqbal Qasim (15th), Wasim Akram (20th), Maninder (25th), Phil Edmonds (27th), Dilip Doshi (28th)
1990s: Wasim Akram (4th), Phil Tufnell (21st), Chaminda Vaas (24th)
2000s: Chaminda Vaas (10th), Daniel Vettori (13th), Zaheer Khan (15th), Ashley Giles (23rd), Mitchell Johnson (24th), Monty Panesar (26th)
2010s: Rangana Herath (5th), Mitchell Johnson (8th), Trent Boult (15th), Pragyan Ojha (17th), Shakib al Hasan (19th), Zaheer Khan (20th), Abdur Rehman (22nd), Junaid Khan (25th), Neil Wagner (29th)

Notice something about that latest surge? Fewer than half those chaps are spinners, compared with more than 80% in the 1980s. An Earth XI to play XXII from Mars? On current form, the attack would be 80% leftist: Boult, Johnson, Starc, Steyn and Herath. In fact, if you fancied restoring an ancient English tradition, the lefties would probably duff up the righties (even if the chief selector did succumb to sentimentality and choose dear old Shiv):

By The Left XI: Warner, Gayle, Sangakkara (capt & wk), Ballance, Chanderpaul, Shakib/Mominul, Johnson, Starc, Wahab, Boult, Herath

All-Right XI: McCullum (capt & wk), Amla, Kohli, de Villiers, Root, Steven Smith, Harris, Steyn, Ajmal, Anderson, Broad

Depressingly, there wouldn't be an English bowler in the leftie 10th XI. Simon Kerrigan, the last-but-one to play a Test, is still nursing the scars. Over the past five years, of the 35 lefties who have pocketed five or more Test wickets, the lone Pom is Monty Panesar (41, 14th-most), whose form has gone the way of his peace of mind. With pickings this slim, the heart bleeds even more for Tymal Mills, a rapid, potent prospect persistently dimmed by injury. Hence the growing clamour for two allrounders: David Willey, Peter's belligerent, boisterous lad, and Keith Barker, projected to become the first man since Arnie Sidebottom in 1985 to be capped after moonlighting as a professional f***baller. Spin? The Times recently touted Dean Cosker - aged 37, first-class strike rate north of 75, average north of 35 - as an Ashes contender. Say no more.

Still, hats off to the newest addition to the English left brigade. Adam Lyth strikes you as the absolute obverse of that much-ballyhooed, bloody-minded Yorkshire obstinacy, no cutting before tea and all that tosh. As Jason Gillespie will doubtless tell you, this is by no means a bad thing.

The aggressive pull that kicked off England's second dig at Lord's stirred the blood, albeit not as rousingly as the very first move Lyth made: the bracingly assured way he broke his duck first ball, pushing, calling and running; a statement at once serene and bold (let's trust it wasn't merely a reaction to that arty-farty new cable-knit jumper). He warrants a second chance, especially on his home ground.

The most compelling advert for the pro-left lobby, though, is plainly Ben Stokes, who in one match revived this column's overly optimistic belief that the game could yet capture the hearts of its grandchildren (having failed abysmally to seduce their potential parents).

As with Moeen Ali, one sometimes wishes he bowled the same way round as he bats, but let's not be greedy. Shattering a Lord's record and eclipsing Botham in one afternoon is enough to be getting on with. That the new hero's own response was profound indifference was the best news of all. May he prioritise his batting; let his role model be neither Botham nor Flintoff but Sobers.

If promotion to No. 6 was one of the more admirable shows of faith by the England selectors in recent memory, it was also a giddily adventurous one: Jos Buttler, after all, was averaging twice as many. James Whitaker and chums deserve credit for their patience, for their shameless leftist bias, and for overlooking the bad/sad/mad days in the hope that they'll be outnumbered by the absolutely fabulous ones.

Such is that fusion of stillness, timing and power, the best verb to describe how Stokes' shots hugged that hallowed outfield is not "scorched" or "fizzed" but "swooshed"; they hovered somewhere between Gower's click, Dexter's crack and Botham's boom. This column honestly can't recall a more invigorating sound from an English bat.

By which, of course, it means English in the nicest possible way: the modern, inclusive, non-geographical, don't-give-a-monkey's-who-his-parents-support way.