We may strive to be objective but are as susceptible to bouts of favouritism as anyone else. But few will argue with our taste if we said that Garry Sobers is along with Kapil Dev our favourite cricketer. Sobers makes an appearance in this essay, because he has 235 Test wickets bowling left-arm. It is almost impossible to estimate how many of his 235 Test wickets came from his left-arm fast, or left-arm orthodox or from his chinaman bowling. Truth to tell, between the two of us, we have seen him take wickets with all three forms of left-arm bowling. When he bowled his fast stuff he was very effective. He would often take the new ball with Hall. He did everything with a feline grace that nobody has ever remotely matched — his walk to the wicket, to toss the coin, to lead his men out or to take his turn at the crease — Sobers was magic. And then every so often he had the habit of throwing his head back and laughing while playing his cricket.
Sobers must be followed by Worrell, even if Worrell is twenty-first in the list of wicket takers (69 wickets with a best of seven for 70) simply because he had a huge part in the making of Sobers. Statesman, leader, one who elevated the game through his principles of fair play, Worrell was a better bat than bowler. But his left-arm fast was valuable and very often timely for his team.
Talking of West Indians, is it not very ironic that they who gave the world its greatest and unending battery of fast bowlers from Martindale, Constantine, Hall, Griffith, and Gilchrist, to Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft, Marshall, Ambrose and Walsh did not throw up a single left-arm fast bowler barring the brief and insipid appearance of Bernard Julien.
Think about it. During that same period, India despite being known for its paltry fast bowling resources played a number of left-arm seamers. Surti and Solkar (Solkar was very slow, but terrorised Boycott out of the England team in 1971) were followed by Ghavri (109 wickets), Nehra (44 wickets), Zaheer Khan (288 wickets), Irfan Pathan (100 wickets) and RP Singh (40 wickets). In fact Irfan Pathan has a hat-trick in Test cricket, against Pakistan in 2005, one of the rarest feats possible.
Any cricket follower in India when asked about England’s left-arm fast bowling will first mention John Lever, for how can one forget his alleged, unproven use of Vaseline against India in 1977. Strangely, in their land so conducive to swing, England has not produced a star performer in this category and none crossed the Rubicon of 100 wickets. They had right-arm fast bowlers such as Larwood, Allen, Bedser, Trueman, Statham, Tyson, Snow, Willis, Botham, Flintoff, Hoggard, Anderson and Broad but hardly a left-arm fast. Bill Voce (98 wickets) partnered Larwood in the 1932 Bodyline series, Ryan Sidebottom was promising during his 22 Test career, but they will have to go back 120 years to Geoff Hirst, to locate another left-arm fast bowler with over 50 wickets.
The one country with a reasonably regular presence of left-arm fast is Australia, with over nine players (more than 50 wickets) representing the country. Apart from Davidson three other bowlers who took over 100 wickets are Mitchell Johnson, Bill Johnston and the very tall Bruce Reid. Gary Gilmour is famous for his match winning dream spell that demolished England in the World Cup semifinal in 1975. He swung the ball late and prodigiously to get batsmen lbw. Talking of Gilmour and the World Cup reminds us that India’s left-armer Ashish Nehra also took a terrific six wicket haul in the World Cup in 2003 to help India beat England.
So what then is the difference and variety that the left-arm fast bowler brings to the attack? For one, the left-armer bowls over the wicket introducing a new angle to the right-hand bat and the batsman is forced to play balls pitching in line with the stumps. That is because the natural movement is the in-swinger to the right-hander who can be caught leg before and this makes it difficult for the batsman to leave balls thinking they will continue on their course. Forced to play the ball, as it goes away with the angle, there is now a high possibility of inducing the edge to slips or the wicket keeper. Going round the wicket, as the great Wasim and Zaheer both have shown, then poses fresh problems to batsmen.
Batsmen grow up from school days playing right arm fast bowlers and therefore when they encounter the left-armer, they do so without adequate exposure. Batting is ultimately the reflex response in a fraction of a second and the left-armer’s line of attack induces some hesitancy in the mind and therefore the reflex too is affected. As the two of us discussed the subject, it dawned upon us that while in school cricket we had even encountered the Chinaman bowler, it was only in college cricket that we played the left-arm fast bowler. Of us, Raghunath who played Ghavri in the 1970s felt that being a left-hand batsman he probably was less discomfited than the right-hand batsman. So we leave you with that thought: Is it really easier for the left-hand batsman to face the left-arm fast bowler? Before you say yes, one might ask a certain Mr Graeme Smith of South Africa about his discomfiting encounters with Zaheer Khan of India.
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