by S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath
We did a dip stick survey with friends, who are knowledgeable followers of cricket, asking them to name five well-known left-arm fast bowlers, relying only on their memory and without giving them much time. Of the 27 friends, only 11 could name five left-arm fast bowlers. Almost everyone called out Wasim Akram’s name. Many mentioned Zaheer Khan; quite a few remembered Chaminda Vaas and then they gave up. On the other hand, 23 of the 27 friends easily named five right-arm fast bowlers and five right-hand batsmen, 20 of the 27 were also able to name five left-hand batsmen. But the same people also struggled to recall the names of left-arm spinners and only 10 of them could name 5 left-arm spinners. That in itself tells a story — left arm bowling has somehow not been able to etch itself in the mind, in the way right-arm bowling or left-hand batting has. Everyone agrees that left-arm fast bowling is a key weapon in the bowling arsenal. Is not the sight of the left-arm fast bowler running smoothly up to the crease and delivering, as joyous a sight as any in cricket? And yet we struggle to recall even five left-arm fast bowlers. Surely there must be a reason?
We decided to go to our trusted friend, the databank of cricket statistics to check out the actual situation. And there is enough evidence to show that indeed, barring just a handful, there are not enough left-arm fast bowlers with huge numbers and feats. Here is a quick snap shot summary from Test cricket:
1. In terms of wickets taken, the gulf between left-arm fast bowlers and the others — left-arm spin, right-arm spin and right-arm fast is huge. While left-arm fast bowlers have taken 5224 wickets, right-arm fast bowlers have over 33000 wickets, right-arm spinners over 13000 wickets and even the left-arm spinners have taken 20 percent more wickets than the left-arm fast bowlers.
2. The two left-arm fast bowlers who have crossed the 300-wicket mark are Wasim Akram and Chaminda Vaas. And those who have over 150 Test wickets can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Zaheer Khan, Garry Sobers, Mitchell Johnson, Alan Davidson and Bill Johnston.
3. The difference really kicks in when we look at the bowlers who have more than 100 wickets. There are nearly twice as many left-arm spinners as left-arm pace men with over 100 wickets.
4. Interestingly this kind of chasm is not seen when one compares left-hand and right-hand batsmen. While 57 right-hand batsmen have over 5000 runs, 27 left-handed batsmen too have crossed this great milestone. In fact, left-handers constitute over 26 percent of batsmen who have crossed the 1000 run mark in Tests.
So let us move on to the best left-hand fast bowlers. Well there is Wasim Akram on a pedestal of his own, undisputedly the greatest left-arm fast bowler of all time. And this is just not on the basis of numbers (414 wickets, at an average of 23 runs per wicket and a strike rate of a wicket every nine overs) for to use that as the yardstick would be to trivialise his glorious mastery of the art. Wasim had a relatively short run up and an unbelievably quick arm action that surprised the batsman. The great man would then switch to round-the-wicket and cause fresh problems with a new angle. He could generate pace from a short run using his unique shoulder action and unbelievable arm speed and unsettle batsmen with clever change of pace. Add to that the ability to bowl excellent yorkers, and move the ball both ways and one had perhaps the most complete bowler. Every batsman who played Wasim rates him as one of the most difficult bowlers to play.
Perhaps only a few of our readers would have seen Alan Davidson of Australia bowl in a Test match. But one of your authors has seen him bowl in full pomp in the Chennai Test of 1960. Those who have seen him will agree that before Akram, Davidson was clearly the greatest fast bowler. He played just 44 Tests (Akram played 104) and captured 186 wickets at an average of 20 runs per wicket and a strike rate that gave him a wicket every 10 overs. For someone as broad as Davo, his smooth action was amazing. He seemed to glide in and bowled with such control taking the ball away from the left–handed openers. He would suddenly bring it in to surprise the left-hander moving across the crease and bowl him leg-stump behind his back. There are photographs of Geoff Pullar, England’s left-handed opener looking bamboozled playing the wrong line. Pullar, asked about these dismissals later was quite emphatic that those deliveries would have also dismissed any other left-hander. Davidson was very often close to unplayable in the period ’58 to ’63. We also heard a few years ago this story — when a member of Steve Waugh’s great Australian team was extolling Matt Hayden’s batting, Neil Harvey (a golden oldie and teammate of Davidson) was heard to say that good as Hayden was, Davidson would have got him in one over. Such was the regard for Davidson’s bowling. Clearly Davidson is the second greatest left-arm fast bowler of them all.
And then there is Zaheer Khan. In terms of wickets he may be behind Chaminda Vaas (Vaas has retired at 355 wickets, Zaheer with all his injuries is still active on 288) but over the last few years Zaheer has emerged as the foxiest, craftiest left-arm fast bowler. People talk of spinners sometimes bowling with a fast bowler’s aggression (Venkataraghavan, Kumble and O’Reilly) but Zaheer is the ultimate example of a fast bowler with the cunning scheming brain of a spin bowler. And of course, he has elevated the art of bowling round the wicket and the art of reverse swing to an all-time high.
Chaminda Vaas and Muralitharan carried Sri Lanka’s bowling on their shoulders. Relatively small made, Vaas had a smooth action and movement that got him wickets. His control over line and length was immaculate and he bowled the fuller length to get swing.
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.