Six times he got him out. Six times from eight attempts. David Warner is one of the best opening batsmen in the game and came into the Ashes series in pretty decent form having scored heavily in the recent World Cup. And yet, that didn’t stop him from being totally dominated by Stuart Broad, who posed questions the Australian left-hander is yet to answer.
The main plot of the Ashes, so far, has been the persistent and preternatural brilliance of Steven Smith. But subplots abound: Ben Stokes’ wizardry at Leeds; Jofra Archer’s fiery pace and his battle with Smith; the Australian pace attack’s all-round excellence.
Another subplot has been Broad's hold over Warner. Previously, it was Warner who lorded over the pacer. Before this series, the batsman averaged over 65 against Broad. This time he has reached double figures only once. This is therefore new state of affairs, a marked turnaround.
It was brought about, according to the bowler, by a change of mindset and a change in technique. "Up until this series," explained Broad before to the fourth Test, "Warner has had the better of me, really. I'd always focussed on his outside edge thinking running the ball across him would bring in the slips. I had a change of mindset in this series a little bit to try and bring the stumps into play more to him. I'm looking to nip it back onto off-stump. Then, if it holds its line, it brings the outside edge into play and that actually limits the scoring options slightly.”
For this series, Broad opted to go round the wicket to Warner, a mode of attack that is indicative of a wider response to left-handed batting, one that tries to address some of the unique problems that left-handers pose.
It is better to bat left-handed. Left-handedness, in fact, bestow advantage in almost every sport. One reason for this is their relative unfamiliarity. The southpaw in boxing, for example, often presents more of a challenge because they are fewer in number and most fighters would’ve been more accustomed to facing right-handers. The same goes for left-handed pitchers in baseball and left-handed table tennis players.
In cricket, the right-handed seam bowlers are usually more comfortable, more accustomed to, and better at bowling to the right-handed batsmen. It is a well-known fact, for example, that one of the best fast bowlers of recent times, Dale Steyn, much preferred and was more successful bowling to right-handers. Jasprit Bumrah, regarded by many as the most complete seam bowler going around, has dismissed 38 right-handers in Tests at an average of 16.47 and a strike rate of 35.39. Against lefties, however, his numbers are 24 wickets at 22.54 runs apiece and with a strike rate of 57.29.
It is more difficult to get left-handers out. The most common form of dismissal in cricket is getting out caught, especially by the wicketkeeper or by a fielder in the slips. Opening bowlers, especially, facilitate this type of dismissal by swinging the new ball away from the batsman. Left-handers, however, do not face this type of delivery as often as those batting the other way round. This could be one reason there is such a proliferation of left-handed opening batsmen in Tests.
There is also the LBW rules. The fact that a batsman cannot be given out once the ball lands outside the leg stump provides a disproportionate benefit to left-handed batsmen. A right-hander bowling over the wicket has to land his delivery in line with the stumps in order to gain an LBW verdict. Very few deliveries of this type will go on to hit the stumps because of the angle of the delivery and there often has to be deviation back towards the stumps for there to be any chance of LBW. The right-handed batsman facing a left-hander bowling over the wicket will benefit similarly, but the prevalence of right arm bowlers means that he will face many more deliveries that place him at risk of being out LBW than his left-handed counterpart.
Of the top 50 Test batsmen in terms of batting average (minimum 20 innings), 12, or 24 percent, are left-handers. Considering that only 10 percent of the general population are left-handers, that number represents a sizable overrepresentation of left-handed batsmen at the elite level. All of this means that left-handed batsmen have presented a particular challenge to bowlers over the years, a challenge they have not, on the whole, properly met.
But things are changing. There is an African proverb in Chinua Achebe’s highly acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart that goes, “Eneke the bird says that since man has learnt to shoot without missing he has learnt to fly without perching.” In other words, you make adjustments in order to overcome the problems you face.
Flying in from around the wicket, Broad pinned Warner LBW (though Hawk-Eye later showed the ball was missing leg) in the first innings in Birmingham. Indecision did in the batsman in the second innings, after he decided too late to leave one outside off. In the first innings at Lord's, he was bowled by one that nipped back. At Leeds, he fell LBW to one angled in from off. Indecision again plagued him in the first innings in Manchester and he again edged to the wicketkeeper. In the second innings, he was bowled by one angled in. These were Warner’s dismissals by Broad. All came from balls delivered from round the wicket.
Warner wasn’t the only one discomfited by Broad either. Marcus Harris was nailed LBW twice in Manchester and Australia’s left-handers, according to a CricViz tweet that came after the fourth test, “have massively struggled this series,” averaging 20.62 per innings, compared to the 57.75 average of their right-handers.
West Indian pacers Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel have also utilised the round the wicket method to great effect in recent years, often attacking left-handers from round the wicket from the very first ball. Roach, especially, has presented significant problems to lefties and his success is one of the reasons the West Indies have had some success at home in the past few years.
Confronting the left-handed batsman from around the wicket makes so much sense it is a mystery that it hasn’t long been common practice. As Broad hinted, the prevailing idea was that slanting the ball across the leftie was the best way of getting him out. It is not. The fact that LBW, the third most common form of dismissal, is discounted hands the batsman a huge advantage.
The right-arm bowler going round to the left-hander poses more danger. Slanting the ball into him significantly increases the chances of getting him bowled or LBW, while the outside edge is placed at risk should the bowler urge the ball to straighten. This is the peril the left-hander now constantly faces. They have had a relatively easier path to success in cricket. Maybe now they’ll have to fight just as hard as their right-handed colleagues.