Sport: The charge of the left brigade

Brian Lara, John McEnroe and Ferenc Puskas have all exploited the peculiar advantages of being in the minority
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The Independent Online
OUTSIDE A boxing ring, a cricket square or a tennis court, left- handedness is not considered particularly advantageous or convenient in life. Some cultures actively discourage it as a bad habit and historically the left was considered evil - the word sinister derives from the Latin for on the left side - which has led to numerous superstitions linking the left and the devil.

However, in many sporting arenas the most gifted performers, from John McEnroe to Brian Lara, appear far from inconvenienced, and are often the more flowing, relaxed exponents of their art. Considering that around 90 per cent of the population are right-handed, the number of left-handers to excel in their sport makes interesting reading.

In tennis, McEnroe is joined by Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova and Rod Laver, who is one of only two men to have won all four majors within a calendar year. Some of football's finest, Ferenc Puskas, George Best and Maradona, were also left-foot dominant. Add Babe Ruth, baseball's most acclaimed talent, and there is the makings of an impressive list.

The surge in left-handers is equally prevalent today. Marcelo Rios, the left-handed Chilean tennis player, recently held the world No 1 spot, a position Britain's Greg Rusedski, also a left-hander, is vying for. A quarter of last year's qualifiers in the snooker World Championships in Sheffield played left-handed; the highest number in the tournament's history. Joe Calzaghe, the World Boxing Organisation super middleweight champion, is a southpaw, and Naseem Hamed also boasts the advantage of being able to lead with either hand.

Cricket provides an equally striking example; New Zealand's left-arm pace bowler Geoff Allott shared the honour of leading wicket-taker with Shane Warne in the World Cup, and India's left-handed Saurav Ganguly had the highest score of the tournament. Michael Bevan, the left-handed Australian batsman, currently has the highest one-day average, the leading Test run- scorer is the left-handed Alan Border and Lara is back at the top of the latest Pricewaterhouse Coopers Test match rankings. The leading career and current batting averages are also heavily peppered with left-handers, who have often been described as the more graceful; Graeme Pollock and Sir Garfield Sobers to name but two.

What then are the reasons for this high percentage of left-handers in the top flight of sport? Professor Peter Terry, a coach at the Lawn Tennis Association and now a psychology lecturer at Brunel University, suggests a simple explanation: "Most tennis or cricket players are right-handed and so face right-handed players. Therefore when they face a left-handed player it's difficult to adjust. Left-handed players usually play right- handed players, therefore they are used to it."

Professor John Aggleton, head of cognitive neuroscience at Cardiff University, has studied the over-representation of left-handers in sport and tends to agree. "It is just a strategic advantage. They often have a particular advantage; either the rules happen to favour them or the majority of people are right-handed and that gives them the blessing of unfamiliarity."

The leftie advantage is often referred to in tennis, when a right-hander has to reverse their usual strategy. Many players have pet shots such as the cross-court backhand to their opponents relatively weaker backhand. However, this favourite shot against a left-hander is playing to the forehand, which is generally the stronger side.

There is also the left-handed serve which tends to swing away from the more commonly weaker backhand of the right-hander. As Rusedski points out: "Only 10 per cent of players are left-handed and that gives us the benefit of serving the big points out wide to the ad side. If you can use that advantage to swing your opponent out of court it stops them from making really tough returns."

Of course, this scenario provides the mirror-image problem for the left- hander, but the key is that the left-hander is accustomed to this awkward serve because it will have become the norm after facing so many right- handed opponents. The left-hander has the advantage of suppressing the ability of the opponent.

In cricket many bowlers have an aversion to left-handed batsmen. Steve Watkin, of Glamorgan, says: "It alters my line and I can't give any width to the batsmen." David Gower, one of England's most successful left-handed batsmen, made the most of his unorthodoxy. "The leave is an essential weapon when the ball slants across you. It is safe and can frustrate a bowler into pulling his line towards your body where it is safer for stroke- making," he says. This helps to explain why left-handers are usually faster scorers, to whom the idea of long, dour occupation of the crease seems tedious.

It is also considered easier for left-handers against leg-spinners because the ball turns into the pads and is therefore less likely to be edged behind. Test teams often select at least two left-handed batsmen ahead of arguably more talented right-handers to help counter the menace of leg-spinners such as Australia's Warne.

Another strategic advantage favouring a left-handed batsman's progress in the sport is that a right and left-handed partnership causes the bowler to change his line persistently, resulting in a loss of accuracy. Test teams prefer a left-hander and right-hander as an opening partnership to maximise this initial advantage. Two of the most successful partnerships in modern times were the right and left combination of Australia's Bill Lawry and Bobby Simpson and England's John Edrich and Geoff Boycott. It is also a well-known ploy to split up right and left-handers in the batting order to try to maintain the right, left partnership at the crease. Again the left-hander is selected partly for his disruptive ability.

Left-arm bowlers also benefit from their originality. They deliver the ball at an unusual angle and can tempt all but the most stubborn right- hander into playing outside his off-stump. Matthew Fleming, the Kent captain, agrees: "I always prefer a right-arm bowler because the ball is not generally slanting across me where I am more likely to chase it." Mark Ilott, the Essex pace bowler, recognises this and uses it to his advantage: "The idea is to swing the ball back into the right-hander, but if the line is good, even if it doesn't swing, hopefully the batsmen plays for swing and will nick it."

Left-arm finger spinners also carry more ammunition than their right- arm counterparts as they turn the ball away from the bat. Two players can have the same ability but because one uses the left arm he is more effective. David Fulton, Kent's right-handed batsmen, prefers the blanks of a right-arm spinner to the firepower of a leftie. "I prefer the ball coming into the bat as it opens up the leg side and I'm more comfortable when the ball isn't turning away from me," he says.

Given the clear strategic advantages related to playing left-handed, a beneficial development for cricketers or tennis players would be to be able to bat/serve equally well left and right-handed. This is not uncommon in baseball, where switch hitters are commonplace. Ronnie O'Sullivan has also used this ability to his advantage in snooker, when right-handed cueing is awkward he can play left-handed. This ability to change at will in other sports could be used to perplex the best of opponents and would add a fascinating aspect to cricket and tennis.

Interestingly, however, it may not simply be strategic advantages that explain the success left-handers experience in sport. There may also be a neurological explanation caused by differences between the brain of a right-hander and a left-hander. Phil Coburn, a neurosurgical research fellow at Frenchay Hospital, Bristol, says: "The right-hand hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice versa. The right hemisphere is predominantly involved with visual and spatial tasks and 3-D perception, thus the left-hander has easier access to these qualities and abilities and therefore has an inbuilt advantage. It is undoubtedly true, therefore, that left-handers have an innate advantage relating to fast-ball sports."

Coburn's opinions are supported by other psychological experiments which have shown that left-handers have faster eye-hand coordination with their non-preferred hand than right-handers. In other investigations, carried out by the psychologists Diana Kilshaw and Marian Annett, the left hand of right-handers has been found to be slower than the right hand of left- handers. Left-handers also tend to be faster with their left hand than right-handers with their right hand. Overall left-handers generally have an absolute superiority in skilled hand movement and appear to be less reliant on their dominant side than right-handers. As Kilshaw and Annett say: "Findings for the non-preferred hand leaves no room for doubt that the visuo-motor skill of the non-preferred hand is linearly related to degree of left-hand preference. Left-handers have an absolute advantage over right-handers in motor speed."

Further trials have shown differences in hand strength. Strength wanes appreciably faster in the non-dominant hand of right-handers than in the right hand of left-handers. This superior hand strength is invaluable in the two-handed art of batting or playing tennis strokes. Keeping the face of the bat or racket straight and therefore reducing errors requires stamina in both hands.

The neurological argument in cricket is somewhat confused by the fact that some batsmen play left-handed when they are by other common definitions right-handed or vice versa. Lara for example is right-handed until he picks up a cricket bat. Perhaps this way of batting is the ideal technique as the dominant hand is then used on the top of the bat handle. The conventional way of batting, however, means that the top hand is the weaker. This can force the bottom hand to push through, spooning the ball into the air. This is good for power, but not for control.

In cricket it is hard to say if left-handers benefit from a strategic advantage or a neurological advantage. The most likely explanation is a combination of the two.

Millimetres and milliseconds can be deciding factors in sport, and teams and individuals are constantly searching for something extra to give them an advantage over the opposition. Technology is constantly evolving, physiotherapists and even faith healers are used. However, graphite rackets and clubs, ultra-sound or the sharing of your problems with Eileen Drewery appear less far-reaching in their effect than old-fashioned left-handedness.

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