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Essays

A history of left-handed batting

Maladroit, sinister and gauche?

Andy Bull
01-Oct-2020
Ben Stokes and Jack Leach's last-wicket stand gave England an unexpected win in the Headingley Test  •  Getty Images

Ben Stokes and Jack Leach's last-wicket stand gave England an unexpected win in the Headingley Test  •  Getty Images

February 2019 in Durban: Kusal Perera cuts the winning runs in Sri Lanka's one-wicket victory against South Africa, one of the greatest Tests ever played. July at Lord's: Ben Stokes follows an unbeaten 84 with eight more in the super over as the World Cup reaches its improbable climax. August at Headingley: Stokes is closing in on a century, with Jack Leach at the other end, in the final moments of one of England's most breathless wins. September at Taunton: Leach is bowling, Alastair Cook batting, in the last twist of a classic County Championship. November at Adelaide: David Warner punches to cover, the final single in his monumental unbeaten 335.
There's another world in which none of these things happened - not the way we saw them, anyway - a parallel timeline where 2019 is mapped out by another set of landmarks, and the game looks very different. In the summer of 1913, while the nation worried about women's suffrage, Irish Home Rule, and mass strikes in the Black Country, English cricket was in the midst of its own little crisis. Everyone who cared for it was fretting, again, about its health. And The Times, that stately paper of record, had a "revolutionary" proposal to fix it. Ban the left-handers.
Not immediately: that, the paper allowed, would be "absurd". But from now on, all boys should be taught to bat right-handed, leading - in a decade or so - to "the painless extinction of the left-handed batsman". The Times were so keen that they returned to the idea when the debate about the state of the game restarted after the war: "The left-handed batsman is a thorough nuisance and a cause of waste of time." From 1925 onwards, none of the breed should "come into cricket".
The Times were tapping into the prejudice against the left-handed: the good sheep, remember, sit at God's righthand, the wicked goats at his left. It was an old stigma, but it found new currency in the schools and factories of Victorian England. The Manchester Guardian were sympathetic, since "the left-hander tries patience, and tends to upset the poise and movement of the game". But, the paper concluded, "they put into the game as much as they take from it".
Wisden described the plan as "fatuous" and "foolish"; Punch called it "monstrous", "treacherous" and "infidel". Imagine if the idea had taken root at the MCC's advisory committee meeting. In that world, Mahela Jayawardene holds the Test record (374), and Hanif Mohammad the first-class (499); Ravi Shastri is the first to hit six sixes, and Graeme Pollock's curtailed Test career isn't a what-if, but a never-was; David Gower does not pull his first ball for four, and Sanath Jayasuriya does not tear up the 1996 World Cup. Five of Test cricket's ten leading run-scorers have been scrubbed from the books, and six of its ten highest scores.
You begin to feel the size of the void. It would have been largest in the last decade: there are more left-handers coming into Test cricket than ever before. Of all the men who made their Test debuts in the 2010s, 30% bat left-handed. That's an increase of 4% on the 2000s, 9% on the 1990s, 13% on the 1980s, and - going much further back - 21% on the 1910s. The common estimate is that around 11% of us are left-handed. In contemporary cricket, then, lefthanders are hugely over-represented.
To understand why, you first need to understand exactly what we're talking about. Because while left and right may seem a binary divide, it's actually a bit of a muddle. That's not just because of the odd ambidextrous player, such as David Warner, who could bat so well both ways that, according to teammates from his teenage years, it was unclear which he would settle for.
The point is that a lot of great left-handed cricketers bat right-handed (Sachin Tendulkar, Michael Clarke, Kane Williamson), and a lot of great right-handed cricketers bat left-handed (Gower, Cook, Brian Lara). In An Endangered Species, Gower describes himself as "a right-handed person in pretty much everything I do" - except the one thing he's most famous for. So you have to distinguish between the genuinely left-handed, such as Garry Sobers, and lefthanders who simply learned to bat that way. (Even then, there's an old story that a busybody teacher tried to make Sobers bat right-handed. It isn't true. But he did try to make him hold his pen with his right hand.)
The stance doesn't depend so much on whether a player is right- or lefthanded, but on the position of the dominant hand. According to a study published in Sports Medicine in 2016, elite players are seven times more likely to bat with their dominant hand on top of the handle than the rest of us. If you're right-handed, that means a left-handed stance. As Gower writes: "Being a left-hander allows my right side to dominate, as it is my right eye, and more importantly my right hand, that leads." He isn't alone. Richard Hutton taught his right-handed son Ben, once the captain of Middlesex, to bat left-handed, because "it means your top hand on the bat handle is your stronger hand, and gives you more control".
Other right-handers ended up switching for more everyday reasons: Sourav Ganguly because he inherited left-handed gloves from his older brother; Mike Hussey because he wanted to copy Allan Border after watching him in the 1982 Boxing Day Test against England; Sadiq Mohammad because his oldest brother, Wazir, told him the Pakistan team lacked lefties. For a game with a reputation for being hidebound by technique, cricket is oddly flexible about the fundamental question of which way round to hold the bat. And it always has been.
In the 1851 edition of The Science of Cricket, James Pycroft (another leftie) included an annotated list of 71 "famous left-handed cricketers". He describes 20 as having either "batted left, but bowled right", "batted right, but bowled left", "batted right, threw left" or - like Leach - "batted left, but threw right". The first in the list was Richard Newland, "the father of serious cricket", according to E. V. Lucas. Newland was a farmer from Slindon in Sussex, where the church still has a tablet on the wall in his honour. He captained All England in the 1740s, and features both on cricket's oldest surviving scorecard and in its first match report, or at least the nearest thing we have to one-James Love's poem about a game between Kent and England at the Honourable Artillery Ground on June 8, 1744.
Newland matters, too, because of his famous nephew, who would captain Hambledon. "He taught Richard Nyren all the skill and judgment that the noble general possessed," Lucas wrote. "Nyren communicated his knowledge to the Hambledon XI, and the game was made." The nephew, like the uncle, was a left-hander, and so was his son, John, who wrote the book on the club, The Cricketers of My Time.
So there is a left-handed lineage running through the sport's earliest years. It was the method practised, and propounded, by the men who shaped cricket's development. In The Game of Life, Scyld Berry estimates that a third of 18th-century batsmen we know about batted left-handed. There were enough, certainly, for a first-class match between left-handers and right-handers at the original Lord's ground in 1790, held for a 1,000-guinea stake. The right-handers were odds-on favourites, but lost by 39 runs. According to Pycroft, the left-handed players were "almost all severe hitters" - one of the first of their stereotypes. Pycroft thought it was because "they can generally use both arms well", and have "a certain square and powerful build".
A century later, Graeme Pollock had a better explanation. "Left-handers are probably fortunate because most bowlers tend to move the ball away from us," he wrote. "This gives you lots of room in which to play your shot, whereas with the ball coming into the body you are inclined to become cramped." The flipside, Pollock argued, is that the concentration of bowling in that channel means left-handers often get a reputation for being weak outside off stump. Which may have been one reason why, even as Pycroft was finishing his list, left-handed batting started to disappear from English cricket. The left-handers played the right-handers twice in the 1820s and 1830s, losing by 226 runs and an innings and 87. The game took place once more, in 1870 - another innings drubbing. W. G. Grace, who took nine wickets and scored 35, complained it wasn't much of a contest because the "left didn't show". Baily's Magazine complained "there is not now a first-class left-handed batsman in England".
The Test team felt the lack. The Australians had produced Joe Darling, who scored three Ashes centuries in 1897-98, and Clem Hill, who scored another in that series, the first of seven. By 1905, The Manchester Guardian were complaining that some English captains were so "dismayed by the advent of a left-hander" that they had no idea how to set the field. It got worse: the summer of 1909 was dominated by two Australian lefties, Warren Bardsley and Vernon Ransford. England were still waiting for one of their own to score a Test century.
Berry puts the decline down to "stern and inflexible Victorian mores, demanding conformity". There is a hint of this in an essay by Theodore Andrea Cook, an Edwardian critic: "The use of the right hand has been encouraged, perhaps from the idea that left-handed batting is awkward in style, or gauche." Gauche is one of those borrowed words referring to the left side that has taken on negative connotations, like maladroit or sinister. Later, Sir William Dobbie, who played three first-class matches for the Europeans in India before he became Governor of Malta, felt so strongly that he said he "would beat a son of mine who tried to bowl with the wrong arm". Cook argued that "Bardsley and Hill seem graceful in spite of their left handedness," which is an inversion of today's cliche´ that left-handers tend to be elegant, like Gower or Moeen Ali. And if they're not elegant, they're bound to be nuggety, like Justin Langer or Graeme Smith, as if their lack of elegance is all the more conspicuous because it contrasts so starkly with our expectations.
We still tend to split left-handers into these two groups, each in opposition to the other. The real difference may just be that one lot love to play the cover drive, despite its risks, and the other lot do not. The oddly moral injunction against using your left hand meant anyone who did inevitably came across as a dilettante. Take Frank Woolley, who finally scored England's first left-handed Test century, in their 120th Test, at Sydney in 1911-12. If Newland was the first great left-hander, Woolley was the first famously graceful one. There were other candidates: Middlesex's F. G. J. Ford was "a wizard", according to Lucas, but Woolley was, still is, the nonpareil.
Neville Cardus made sure of that, with lashings of purple prose. "Cricket belongs entirely to summer every time that Woolley bats an innings," he wrote. "His cricket is compounded of soft airs and fresh flavours. And the very brevity of summer is in it too, making for loveliness. Woolley, so the statisticians tell us,often plays a long innings. But Time's a cheat, as the old song sings. Fleeter he seems in his stay than in his flight. The brevity in Woolley's batting is a thing of pulse or spirit, not to be checked by clocks, but only to be apprehended by imagination. He is always about to lose his wicket."
Woolley himself would point out, more prosaically, that if it seemed he was always about to lose his wicket, it was because "a left-hand bat has to cope with the bowler's rough". But Cardus had done his talking for him, apparently inventing the stereotype of the stylish but flawed left-hander, which lingers today. In the end, Woolley's cover drive, thing of beauty as it was, was the single best argument against the Times's proposal. The paper had a point when they argued "that a boy at the beginning of his cricket career, even if he be naturally left-handed, can be taught to bat just as well right-handed in the same way that many boys who are naturally right-handed have been taught, or have taught themselves, to bowl left-handed".
Jofra Archer has done exactly that, and warms up by bowling left-arm spin because, he says, it's a fun way to stretch that side of his body. Where the paper got it wildly wrong, though, was in leaping from that to this: "Thus if left-handed batting had never been allowed at cricket, there would have been no hardship." Oh, there'd have been less hardship for the bowlers, no doubt. But what a loss for the rest of us.
Andy Bull writes on sport for The Guardian.