Monday, November 05, 2007

Left out in India

After India eased to victory in the first one-day international (scorecard) against Pakistan today, the Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni said that he promoted himself ahead of Yuvraj Singh in the batting order to keep a left-right combination in the middle. Which got me wondering.

Almost every cricket-playing nation has had at least one or two left-handers who could lay claim to being among the top 10 test batsmen of their country. The West Indies have Sir Garfield Sobers and Brian Lara, Australia have Allan Border and Matthew Hayden, Sri Lanka have Arjuna Ranatunga and Sanath Jayasuriya, New Zealand have Glenn Turner and John Wright, England have Frank Woolley and David Gower, South Africa have Gary Kirsten (and could have had a couple more if they had not been banned for all those years), Pakistan have Saeed Anwar. What about India?

Saurav Ganguly would probably be deemed India’s best left-hander in history, but, with due respect, not too many people would consider him among the top ten all-time test batsmen in India. Why did India have such a paucity of southpaws? The small town I grew up in, if it were to be considered representative of India, could offer some hints.

I grew up playing cricket on the streets of a small town in Tamil Nadu in South India. Because of the layout of the street (we used to play diagonally across), there was (from a right hander’s position) no fine-leg or square-leg, and not much of a mid-wicket either; the most productive shot was the on-drive (ironically considered one of the most difficult to play in international cricket); and the odd single could be had if the cover-drive or off-drive is played gently enough so the ball doesn’t ricochet into a fielder’s hands.

Quite often, the fact that we had a limited number of players (about ten between the two teams) meant that shots in the arc covering point through to the wicket-keeper were not allowed. This led to an unwritten rule: left-handers not allowed. This was because they would, we right-handers reckoned, be quite a nuisance if they have the habit of playing off their hips down towards fine-leg, which, apart from fetching no runs, would also cause a delay in play because some one would have to run and fetch the “dead” ball. Even when we included left-handers into the team, they were openly made fun of and referred to as lottai, local vernacular derogatory slang for a southpaw.

So while we went into raptures imagining the languid grace of David Gower or the awesome power of Clive Lloyd (as recounted by the radio commentators of those days), we didn’t want a southpaw in our team. Rather conveniently for us, the Indian top order of those days (I am referring to the early 1980s) did not have a single left-hander, comprising as it did Sunil Gavaskar, Chetan Chauhan, Dilip Vengsarkar, Gundappa Vishwanath, two from Yashpal Sharma, Sandeep Patil and Mohinder Amarnath, and Kapil Dev. Unconsciously, I suppose, this made us feel justified in our discrimination.

Of course, things are changing now, and we have a steady flow of left-handers into the Indian team. May be it has to do with all those old houses being combined into apartment blocks and separate playing spaces being created for budding cricketers. But when I reflect on those days, I wonder how many talented left-handers India missed out on, because of the design of our streets.

And speaking of left-handers, it has also been long said that they are so naturally graceful that it is rare to find an inelegant left-hander. But that, thanks to the all-seeing eye of television, has proved to be a myth. More on that in the next post perhaps.

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