Pringle column: Much method to the left-arm madness

By Derek Pringle

They used to be considered undesirable freaks, but left-handers – at least those who can bowl well – are in great demand for white-ball cricket the world over. To show they are up with the latest fashions, England’s selectors included three – David Willey, Reece Topley and spinner Liam Dawson – in the 15-man squad for next months’s World T20 in India.

In the case of Willey and Topley, they appear wise to do so. Since the rise of T20 leagues, left-arm pace bowlers have outperformed their right-arm counterparts. Although this column has not performed an in-depth study, inquiries have revealed that most players now believe an advantage lies with playing left-arm seamers.

The figures appear to back them up. Stats taken from last year’s World Cup showed left-arm pacemen to be far superior to their right-arm rivals. Mind you with Mitchell Starc, Trent Boult, Mohammad Irfan and Wahab Riaz providing a stellar spearhead for the lefties, you might argue that the numbers were bound to be skewed in their favour.

Nevertheless, they make a compelling case with left-armers taking a wicket every 24 balls, 12 better than the right-armers managed over the 32 matches measured. Lefties also conceded fewer runs per over (0.9 better) and bowled more dot balls (seven per cent more), so were superior across all metrics.

What causes this primacy? Well, relative rarity still plays a part, though that will diminish as more teams seek to play left-armers. Growing up and throughout their early development, batsmen mostly face right-arm bowlers and, as such, tend to find solutions for them. Although left-armers exist, there are far fewer of them. As a result, there is not the same urgency to counter them as there is for right-armers.

Then there is the awkward geometry left-armers lend, in particular to batsmen who use baseball techniques to strike the ball over the ropes.

To hit the baseball way, a right-handed batsman would widen his stance in order to lower his centre of gravity then clear his front leg to allow a powerful, uninhibited, scything swing of the bat. With arms freed, he can, in theory, make a good connection with balls pitching anywhere from outside off to leg stump on just about any length.

Likewise, his hitting arc is about 180 degrees – from square cover to deep square leg, though it can be greater if the ball is short, allowing the batsman the leverage to strike it behind square.

Although modern bats make a mockery of most boundaries, bowling to your field is still the best way to keep the runs down.

This is where left-armers, especially to right-handed batsmen, seem to have an advantage. By going round the wicket, as opposed to over (the side they take in Test matches or at the start of one-day games), they create an extreme angle that naturally takes the ball into the pads whichever variation – slower ball, yorker, bouncer – they choose.

Apart from cramping the batsman, they virtually take the off-side out of the equation for baseball-style hitting. That means they can bolster the leg-side, which should save runs.

That angle also makes it more difficult to play the ramp shot, scourge of bowlers accurate enough to find the blockhole regularly. One county coach was asked recently whether Joel Garner – the greatest yorker bowler of his generation – would be as effective against today’s batsmen. The answer was probably not, but only because, as a right-arm fast bowler, he would get ramped.

Of course, those prepared to play conventionally with a straight bat, as Hashim Amla did in South Africa’s victory on Tuesday, can still exploit the off-side against left-armers bowling from round the wicket, but it is much trickier for the hackers, of which every white ball team now has plenty.

Stuart Broad, not selected for England’s T20 squad despite captaining the side less than a year ago, worked on a variation of this angle of attack for the 2009 World T20, held in England. Although a right-arm bowler, his idea was to come round the wicket and bowl it full outside the off-stump, thereby forcing the batsmen to hit in the Vee only. It sounded plausible in theory, but England’s defeat to the Netherlands, in which he adopted it for the final few overs, swiftly saw it mothballed.

Being a leftie isn’t a failsafe. Amla and his opening partner, Quinton de Kock, a left-handed batsman, had little trouble with England’s left-armers, Willey and Topley, at Centurion the other night. Apart from left-handers like de Kock negating the advantages offered by their bowling counterparts, Amla countered them by playing powerful, wristy shots square on both sides of the wicket.

What needs to be factored in is that neither Willey nor Topley bowled that well at Centurion. Like much of England’s white-ball attack, they are relatively new to international cricket and will improve once they learn to read the runes better and make the necessary adjustments.

For instance, Topley took four wickets in the previous match at Port Elizabeth where his cutters and slower balls gripped in the surface. But that did not happen at Centurion, something he should have realised sooner than he did after some of them sat up to be hit.

While de Kock and Amla batted superbly, most of the pressure lies with the batting side when a team is chasing 319. But instead of hammering a good length and line around off-stump in their opening spells, and building pressure, Willey and Topley got a bit too funky and showed off their variations when there was no need to. The result: pressure-relieving boundaries.

Obviously, had South Africa been chasing 220, then wickets would have been a priority for England.

But on this occasion all the running had to be made by the home side, which meant keeping boundary options – where the batsmen do not take undue risk – to a minimum.

It will be different again in India for the World T20 next month, where Willey and Topley’s lack of angst will be as important as their sinister angle.

One reason bowlers like them are now preferred to someone like Broad is their dispassionate attitude to being clogged out of the ground. They are the phlegmatic children of the T20 revolution now grown up and they want the Rolls Royce, left-hand drive of course.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday February 12 2016

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