Left handed batsmen and the illusion of grace

2012 Apr 09 by Suresh Menon

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.

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By Suresh Menon

While watching Mahela Jayawardena make runs against England in his calm, elegant manner, a friend turned to me and said, “This Mahela bats like a left-hander.” It was the highest compliment in his book. It is also an old argument.

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.

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 said, "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."

Graeme Pollock 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."

Four of the five highest individual scores in Tests have been made by left-handers, the odd one out being my friend’s honorary left-hander, Jayawardena. Two are 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 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.

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.