So well the Kerrs their left-hands ply,
The dead and dying round them lie
“The Reprisal – 1549’” by Walter Laidlaw
The tactic dates back to the late 15th century and Scotland’s Andrew “Dand” Kerr – and it helped him to many a home win. The only surprise is that, over the intervening centuries, the trick has not been more widely adopted. But then, if everyone did it, it wouldn’t be much of a trick would it?
Kerr was a member of the fearsome Kerr Clan of Ferniehirst Castle on the English-Scottish border and, being left-handed, and wanting to keep his head on his neck, he quickly realised his unorthodox trait gave him an advantage when it came to slaying the invading enemy from the south. So, being a canny sort, he taught his right-handed sons and swordsmen to lead with their left hands. Scottish poet Laidlaw, for one, was impressed with the results.
Despite left-handedness being considered disadvantageous in some circles and evil in others – the word sinister derives from the Latin for “on the left side” – some sportsmen today have copied the Kerr Clan, if not knowingly (footage of their swordfights is grainy at best, after all).
Heavyweight Tyson Fury was at it on Saturday as he beat Dereck Chisora, switching from orthodox to southpaw from the second round. “Which other heavyweight in the world can box southpaw against a world-class fighter like Dereck?” asked Fury, rhetorically, after the win. “I’m proud of my performance.”
Super-middleweight James DeGale, who beat Marco Antonio Periban a week last Saturday to take his record to 20-1 does it, too. The British Olympic gold medallist revels in the advantage he feels it gives him in the ring. “I started boxing when I was 10 as an orthodox fighter,” DeGale says, “and as I went on I thought I don’t like being orthodox, I like being a southpaw. It feels more comfortable. So I changed myself. Trainers have always then just gone with me because this is the way I prefer. A lot of boxers don’t like fighting southpaws because they are awkward. When I’m in the ring with someone, straight away I feel like they’re uncomfortable with me. It’s weird.
“They can’t get their jab off. As a southpaw you’re jabbing over their jab so they can’t get to you. And my left-hand or backhand is in line with an orthodox fighter’s face. So it’s a straight left-hand punch. It’s in line. There’s a big advantage. In boxing, people know lefties are awkward and horrible to fight.”
There is a similar tactical benefit to being a left-handed batsman, summed up by one of the best exponents of the art, Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara, who England are failing to contain in the current one-day series. “I bat left but my dominant hand is my right,” he says. “It’s the way I started. The stance is very natural to me. The simple advantage I have is that I set up at an angle where if the ball doesn’t swing into me (assuming I’m facing a right-armer), getting me out lbw is quite difficult.
“Also, leaving the ball is easier when you’re a left-hander facing a lot of right-armers. The bowler can get frustrated and pull his line into your body where it’s easier and safer for stroke-making. You open up different areas to score and take certain risks out of the equation. So, at times, it’s good to be a left-hander.”
Facing spin is easier too, says Sangakkara. “Muttiah Muralitharan [who Sangakkara knows only too well from keeping wicket to him] bowling right-arm off-spin found it hard to dismiss lefties until he developed his doosra, because he’d turn the ball too much to them and miss the edge by a long way and find it hard to get an lbw or bowled.
“Whereas to a right-hander he had the option of turning the ball back in sharply. He could start it outside off and get lbw or bowled or close catches. But left-handers could watch the ball go past and survive. They found it easy. To off-spinners we have more scoring options, you can come down the wicket and hit into areas over cover or mid-off where you don’t have fielders. We have more options.”
So, DeGale, Fury and Sangakkara see it as a plus to be boxing or batting as a southpaw but is there an advantage to boxing/batting as a right-handed southpaw as opposed to a left-handed southpaw? “The majority of southpaws are left-handed,” says DeGale, “but I’m a right-handed southpaw. So my strongest hand really is my front hand, my jab. That’s useful and now my back hand is pretty strong too.”
For Sangakkara his stronger hand is at the top of the bat handle. That must be a good thing for control? “When you’re growing up a lot of coaches say, ‘It’s great you have your strong hand on the top of the handle, you can control the bat face and play straighter without getting across the ball.’ But very soon in international cricket you learn that it’s very much a combination of the two hands that gives you touch and power. If you want to penetrate the field then you have to know how to use both hands in your own way to execute the shots.
“The bottom hand actually gives you a lot of power, the punch you need to penetrate the field, to hit the ball out of the ground. So sometimes I do wonder if it is a good thing batting the way I do. A really strong bottom hand that is able to take control – just before, during and after impact – where the top hand becomes the guide and the power comes from the bottom hand can be useful.
“To a big unit like Matt Hayden it may not have mattered because he had the power anyway. Maybe, for a smaller guy like me trying to bat with a lot of power, I might have been at more of an advantage if my bottom hand had been my dominant hand. I’m not sure.”
One tactical benefit DeGale and Fury have and Sangakkara doesn’t is being able to switch – a fantastically useful ability. “I’m like [former world champion] Marvin Hagler, he was also a right-handed southpaw,” DeGale says. “He used to switch too. I often do it and it feels natural – not forced. That’s a huge advantage. I can mess with people’s heads. I’ve been in the ring with a switch-hitter and it’s very frustrating and can be very confusing. And I’m one myself. So, yeah, I can’t imagine what I do to other people.”
The delights of being ambidextrous then? “No,” DeGale says. “It’s weird because I can’t write with my left hand, can’t kick with my left foot. I can’t do nothing with my left. But when I’m fighting my left hand is amazing. I can throw it from all different angles. I’ve stood in that stance for so many years I’m just used to it now. It feels so comfortable.”
For Sangakkara, unlike David Warner of Australia or Kevin Pietersen, many moons ago an England batsman, the switch – changing stance from left-handed to right- or vice versa as the bowler delivers, which forced the ICC to examine its rules – isn’t an option. “I can’t bat right-handed even if I try. I find it very hard to move my body into that position. I’m not ambidextrous and not able to change stance to see if it works,” he says. “Warner can bat equally well both ways. He has a switch-hit where he clears the field quite easily as a right-hander. But I’m pretty happy with the way my career has gone.”
A Test average of 58 would suggest he’s right but the evolution of limited-overs batting means learning the switch-hit may be the norm in the future. Warner was even once endorsed to use a double-faced bat in Twenty20. Speaking in 2010, he described why he changes: “We had a practice and Nathan Hauritz was bowling,” he said. “They were turning square and I got sick of it. I couldn’t hit a ball, so I batted right-handed and started putting him in the stands. So I thought I might as well bring it out in a game. If a spinner is working to a plan to me, why can’t I try to counteract it?”
Seems fair and switch-hitting has long gone on in baseball, with New York Yankees great Mickey Mantle the most famous. Usually, right-handers hit better against leftie pitchers and vice versa so the ability to swap is a real plus. Most curveballs break away from batters hitting from the same side as the opposing pitcher, making them harder to hit with the meat of the bat. Mantle (right-handed) always considered himself a better hitter on his stronger side, but bizarrely hit more home runs left-handed because they were walloped at Yankee Stadium, a leftie-friendly ground due to the short right field.
Mantle also batted left much more than right, because there have always been more right- than left-handed pitchers. “My dad taught me to switch-hit,” Mantle said. “He and my grandfather, who was left-handed, pitched to me everyday after school in the backyard. I batted leftie against my dad and rightie against my granddad.”
Switch-pitching is much rarer. Only one player, Greg A Harris in the 1990s, has pitched left- and right-handed in the same MLB game. But wouldn’t it be useful if they could, thus negating the skill of the Mantles of this world in one go?
Snooker’s Ronnie O’Sullivan regularly swaps hands to great effect – he once beat Rex Williams in a three-frame exhibition playing left-handed. Being able to play off both wings would be a huge benefit in many other sports too: a quarter-back able to throw with both a arms, a golfer able to switch when faced with an awkward lie... and on and on.
Being able to switch hands seems such a great weapon to have in your armoury, shouldn’t everyone learn to do it? “Well... yeah,” says DeGale hesitantly, “but certain people just don’t feel comfortable. It feels awkward, it feels odd to stand in that stance that just ain’t right for you. And to try and throw punches and defend yourself – it’s too hard. Your feet are all over the place. Your hand is down then you’re trying to throw shots. It’s all a bit too much.
“And I don’t want too many people doing it or I’ll lose my element of surprise.” The Kerr Clan would have agreed.
Sky Sports viewers can watch left-handed sportsmen during England’s tour to Sri Lanka as part of an autumn of sport that also includes Premier League, Champions League and NFLReuse content