Right. What’s left on my list of reasons why cricket is the greatest sport?
Well, thousands of things, of course. But of all the things that are left, nothing is more left than the topic of left-handers.
Mollydookers, cackhanders, southpaws, switch-gloves, inksmudgers, wicked-wingers, portfists, foul-fingers, reverse-wretches, vomit-mitts, Lucifer’s infantry.
No matter what cute nickname you give humanity’s opposite-monkeys, their multi-faceted impact on cricket is yet another reason why it’s the greatest sport of them all.
A lot of people like to get all worked up about the elegance of left-handed batsmen, citing the likes of your Davids Gower or Brians Lara as examples. But those people conveniently ignore the existence of Chris Gayle and Matthew Hayden, men who see your definition of ‘elegant’ and raise it into the stands with a brutal, blunt, bludgeoning bash. Those same people also overlook Allan Border and Sir Alastair Cook, batsmen who knew their limitations and were quite happy to score more than ten thousand inelegant left-handed Test runs within them, thank you very much.
Others instead become enamoured with left-handed bowlers. It may be pacemen, such as Wasim Akram, Chaminda Vaas or any number of Australian quicks named Mitchell. Or perhaps they’ll enjoy the wiles of left-arm spinners such as Rangana Herath, Bishan Bedi or Dan Vettori. Or, y’know, the perennially indecisive Sir Garfield Sobers who excelled in both pace and spin, for no clear reason. And was also by all accounts a handyish batsman too.
I’m not really interested in any of that. I don’t believe there’s anything fundamentally different about how left-handers play cricket, other than the obvious factor of the mirror-imaged freakshow world in which they reside.
Some left-handers are elegant strokeplayers. Some are brutal bludgeoneers. Some bowl exquisitely. Others are Paul Adams.
But there’s no more or less variety among left-handed cricketers than there is among the right-handers.
No, what interests me most about left-handed cricketers is instead what their success in the highest level of cricket can teach us about the kind of game theory mechanics more commonly found in behavioural ecology and evolutionary psychology. I mean, obviously.
Let’s get into it, shall we?
Roughly ten percent of the population is left-handed. And yet, in international cricket, about twenty percent of top order batsmen and a similar proportion of frontline bowlers are left-handed.
To put that another way, left-handers are twice as prevalent in cricket as we’d expect, based on the general population. If we assume that cricketing gifts are equally likely to be bestowed on any given newborn by the Cricket Stork (as I like to call Billy Stanlake), then the proportion of international standard left-handed cricketers should theoretically match the ten percent baseline.
(And, yes, I’m aware that some right-handed wannabes choose to bat left-handed. This might mess up the numbers were it not for the fact that some left-handed weirdos also
choose to bat right-handed. But since the bowlers also exhibit roughly the same 20% proportion of left-handedness, and it’s a lot tougher to bowl with your non-dominant hand than it is to bat, I think we can safely stick with that number.)
So the question is this: Why are left-handers so disproportionately successful at cricket? It’s not because left-handedness makes one inherently more skilful at the game. As a gauche-gripper myself, I can assure you that it’s not helped my competence at the sport one iota.
But if left-handedness doesn’t bestow any innate advantages to a cricketer’s proficiency, then surely the benefit must instead arise not from the skills they possess, but the opponents against whom they wield those skills.
That is, the left-handers thrive precisely because they are in the minority. Batsmen, for example, are less used to the different angles from which left-arm bowlers deliver the ball. Similarly, bowlers have to adjust to the different lines forced upon them when confronted by a left-handed batsmen. For all I know, one has to sledge differently to left-handers too.
It’s not much of a benefit, but at the highest level of the game, even the smallest advantage is open to exploitation. And it’s apparently asset enough for left-handers to appear twice as often in cricket as we’d expect.
But here’s where things get interesting. Yes, being in the minority gives left-handers an advantage. And they use that advantage to become more prevalent in cricket than they’d otherwise be.
But if they become too prevalent, then the thing that gives them their advantage disappears. Because they’d then be so common that the benefit they get from their relative scarcity would no longer exist. In other words, there’s some kind of sweet spot where left-handers can exploit being somewhat unusual in the sport but avoid exploiting it so much that they no longer become unusual.
In game theory, this is called an evolutionarily stable strategy and it explains all manner of things from the genetic composition of species to the emergence of trust in relationships.
The fact that it’s also a viable explanation for the distribution of handedness at the top levels of cricket is, I think, absolute top-notch nerdery.
So please, wonk out with me, and embrace the left-handers in cricket, not for any of their purported ethereal qualities, but instead for the insight their presence offers into a fundamental concept in game theory.
Just for a bit. Then you can go back to drooling over YouTube videos of Kumar Sangakkara’s cover drives.
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