Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Can you tell your left from your right? Part III of V

Slow left arm

Cricket is many many things but it isn't sexy. Well, not unless you count Botham trying, and failing, to get his leg-over. And of all the things in cricket that aren't sexy, the term 'slow left arm' is perhaps the drabbest. Even 'rain stopped play' conjures images of a mass exodus to the bar.

And yet, and yet. Slow left arm isn't boring. Or doesn't have to be. Some of the greatest bowlers ever to have played the game bowled SLA. Wilfred Rhodes took over 4200 First Class wickets bowling left-arm spin. These days 50 wickets in a First Class season is considered an excellent achievement, which suggests that a decent bowler would have to hold down a spot in country cricket for 80 years or so to match Rhodes' tally. Clearly, it's a record that will never be broken. And after Rhodes (for both England and Yorkshire) came Hedley Verity. If Bradman was the greatest batsman of all time (and he was) then Verity, who Bradman rated as the best he had ever faced, the only bowler that Bradman felt he had never entirely sussed, might have some claim to be the best bowler ever, certainly the best of his generation. Killed in WWII, the history of the 'Invincible' Australian tour of 1948 might have been different if Verity had still been around.

The physics of it is simple enough. Your left hand is a non-superimposable mirror image of your right. Therefore if you bowl finger spin, in exactly the same way as you bowl off spin, but with your left hand, the ball will rotate in the opposite direction when it leaves your hand, and when it pitches it will spin the other way. And for some reason, this style of bowling is known as slow left arm orthodox. Or SLA for short.

This method of attack is considered to have more potential than off spin as, to a right-handed batsman the ball is now turning away from him (from leg to off). As the ball spins away he may mis-control his shot and end up stumped or caught. Despite the fact that there have been very few left-arm fast bowlers of note over the last few decades (Vaas, Zaheer and Ilott are the only ones who spring immediately to mind) there have been stacks and stacks of slow lefties, probably because they were coach to bowl that way and exploit the (perceived) weakness of right-handed batsmen to the ball turning away.

Worthy of particular comment are Monty Panesar, who broke through into the England side recently but has now fallen away somewhat, the great 'Deadly' Derek Underwood, who is up there with Laker and Verity as the greatest ever English spinner, and Bishan Bedi.

In many teams, the spin bowler is there as a fall back. Defence to the fast-bowlers offence. A guy the captain can turn to when he wants to give his quicks a break, or stem the flow of runs from a batsman making hay. Many SLAs bowl (or are told to bowl) a negative, containing line. "Just don't get hit" seems to be the refrain. Panesar seemed to be suffering from a lack of variety and invention which eventually led to him being dropped by England. But in India spinners have always been seen as wicket takers, and none were more so than Bedi. The reaction of most spinners to being hit to the boundary is to bowl the next ball quicker, and fuller. A fast defensive dart unlikely to get a wicket, but are harder to hit for four. Bedi would bowl slower, loopier, shorter. Taunting and teasing the batsman. "Go on. Try that again!", his bowling said. It must have worked. Bedi took over 250 Test wickets at an average of less than 30.

And so, to the King of Spain. Never the most threatening of bowlers, the sight of him bowling a negative line (basically landing the ball outside leg-stump every time, making it very difficult for the batsman to score any runs, but also virtually impossible for Giles to take a wicket) to contain the great Sachin Tendulkar was not something that would set any pulses racing. But in 2005, in Old Trafford, he produced a classic example of SLA bowling (pay close attention to the commentary by Richie) to dismiss Damien Martyn. The remarkable thing here is that Martyn tries to defend the ball in exactly the right way (we will see another example of this later) and is completely flummoxed when it hits his off-stump. What a ball!

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