Did India’s selectors miss a trick by choosing a solitary left hand batsman in the top seven for the World Cup in England this summer?
Before answering that it has to pointed out that in five of the last six editions of World Cup, left hand batsmen have played a stellar role for the champion sides. This is not to state that right hand batsmen have not had their moments; just that having left handers in the mix have considerably thrown off opposition bowlers.
In fact even in India’s 2011 World Cup triumph where south paw Yuvraj Singh was man of the tournament, there were three left handers around, Gautham Gambir, Yuvraj and Suresh Raina. Gambhir was outstanding in the final where with MS Dhoni, he turned the match India’s way. Raina had his moments against Pakistan in the semifinal. Additionally there were three left arm bowlers in that team: Zaheer Khan Ashish Nehra and Yuvraj.
Actually the only time champions have had a lone left hander in the top order was during the 2015 edition when Australia fielded only David Warner. But they still had three left arm pacers, Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc and James Faulkner.
It was not as though southpaws were absent earlier. The West Indies team in the inaugural World Cup in 1975 was powered by skipper Clive Lloyd, Alvin Kallicharan – who tamed Dennis Lillee sensationally in one match – and opener Roy Fredericks.
In other editions too there were many others in champion sides, including Alan Border, Amir Sohail, Wasim Akram (who was used as a pinch hitter in 1992), et al.
But it was from 1996 that left handers really exploded on the scene. Sri Lanka, champions that year, were blessed with the explosive presence of opener Sanath Jayasuriya who carved up rival pace bowlers gloriously. Skipper Arjuna Ranatunga, Asanka Gurusinghe and Hashan Tillakaratne too threw bowlers off length and line often.
The introduction of inner circle from 1992 edition led to the deliberate deployment of left handers at the top. A left-right combination harried bowlers to regularly shift line and length and any error was swiftly punished.
The rule permitted only two fielders outside the inner circle in the initial 15 overs (it will be 10 overs in 2019 World Cup) and this called upon bowlers to be accurate always.
The Australian team of 1999, which had dynamic opener Adam Gilchrist, followed down the order by Darren Lehmann and that master finisher Michael Bevan, ran bowling sides ragged with their strokeplay and running between the wickets. They were fortified in the next edition in South Africa by one of the most devastating opening batsmen in the game, Mathew Hayden who often walked out to express fast bowlers and smashed them.
Even in the West Indies, in 2007 when India and Pakistan both bowed out in the first phase, it was Gilchrist, Hayden and Michael Hussey who forced errors.
Thus from 1996 right down to 2015 one constant pattern that emerged was the deployment of left handers at the top of the order. They brought a new element into the game and forced bowlers to constantly alter their line.
Many a time bowlers even had to bowl from around the wicket in an effort to cramp the left-handers. This constant change of line for right and left hand batsmen added to the pressure on bowlers. The restriction on field placements along with regular changes of line, length and guard took its toll of less experienced or off-key bowlers.
These factors have ensured that teams saw left handers as game changers and strategically slotted them at the top.
Take the example of the Australian team announced a couple of days ago. They have no place for a proven batsman like Peter Handscomb simply because they have banked substantially on left hand batsmen – Warner, Alex Carey, Usman Khwaja and Shaun Marsh.
Even the Kiwis who revolutionised the concept by opening with left hander Mark Greatbatch as pinch hitter, have named southpaws Colin Munro, Jimmy Neesham and Henry Nicholls in their squad.
England, Pakistan and West Indies are yet to announce their squads but it is expected that left handers Chris Gayle, Evan Lewis, Shimron Hetmyer and Darren Bravo would headline the West Indies’ batting.
Former England skipper Michael Vaughan tweeted that India should have chosen Rishab Pant as additional left hand batsman (besides Sikhar Dhawan) in its top seven. But the grapevine says his poor fielding was held against him.
Shockingly India suffers from a paucity of quality left-handers. The India A or India Under 19/16 squads or talent scouts have done little or nothing to unearth fresh talent. Of those available, veterans Raina, Parthiv Patel and Yuvraj are reckoned to be over the hill while Nitish Rana is unimpressive against short-pitched deliveries.
Worryingly, an entire generation of bowlers is growing up having no clue on how to bowl to left handers! But that’s a topic for another day.
Thus, did India miss a trick by not choosing another quality left hander at the top of the order? The evidence collected from various past World Cup editions would seem to suggest that Pant’s absence would be felt. In the meantime, all eyes would be on the team that flies out after 23 May. Who knows, the team chosen and the one that flies out may not be the same!