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From Gary Kirsten to Duncan Fletcher – why are so many cricket coaches left-handed?

© Getty Images
Scientific journalist Rik Smits points out that left-handed sportsmen are more likely to get opportunities to practice against right-handed opponents than vice versa, and therefore hold a distinct advantage in sporting contests © Getty Images

Darren Lehmann has succeeded in taking Australia to the pinnacle of the Test world. Previously Gary Kirsten had done the same for India and South Africa. Then there are Andy Flower and Duncan Fletcher, and, a while earlier, John Wright. Arunabha Sengupta wonders about the surprising proportion of modern-day coaches who are left-handed.

According to the American Journal of Psychology, left-handed people are marginally ahead of right-handers when it comes to divergent thinking. And in his book The Puzzle of Left-Handedness, scientific journalist Rik Smits points out that left-handed sportsmen are more likely to get opportunities to practice against right-handed opponents than vice versa, and therefore hold a distinct advantage in sporting contests.

In cricket, however, the all-time top 10 Test batting averages are distributed 6-4 in favour of right-handers, with all the positions 11-17 totally hogged by right-handers. On the bowling front, the top 10 are equally split, while surprisingly numbers 11 to 29 are all right-handers till we come across the southpaw Wasim Akram in the 30th position.

Hence, left-handers may not really lord it over in the on-field action of cricket after all. But, what about the science of eking out the strategy to win matches? Exploring many different options does seem to be a rather important asset to have up one’s sleeve while devising a game-plan. Do the left-handers, with their edge in divergent thinking, turn out to be better coaches?

Whether there is any link to the scientific studies is debatable, but we do find an astounding number of left-handed coaches in the modern game. From John Wright to Gary Kirsten to Duncan Fletcher, there has for long been a guiding left-hand on the reins of the destiny of Indian cricket. And if one looks around the world, one finds the important figures of Andy Flower and Darren Lehmann in the mix as well.

And then there is Stephen Fleming taking up responsibilities for the Chennai Super Kings, causing many to wonder whether he will be available to take on the job for the Indian national team as well. Finally, we find Robin Singh holding various prominent coaching portfolios.

This is indeed surprising. To quote another study, the University of Kansas researchers recently found out that left-handers have been in the minority since the times of the Neanderthals – and it has been the same all through the course of human history. Given this, the proportion of southpaw coaches seem to be surprisingly high in modern cricket to say the least.The long serving coaches of recent times all seem to be left-handed.

Well, that is a tempting conclusion but not quite accurate. There are, of course, people like Greg Chappell, Mickey Arthur and the late Bob Woolmer, who serve as counter examples. This perhaps makes one prone to the hasty journalistic inclination to link right-handed coaches to disaster or death. After all, Chappell and Arthur provoked most stinging of outcries among fans and Bob Woolmer’s reign came to an end in morbid and mysterious circumstances.

Yet, if we stick to facts rather than indulging in such sensational connections, the picture turns out to be quite different. Chappell’s coaching phase in India was indeed controversial, and there was the catastrophic exit from the World Cup. To many the debacle in West Indies underlined that Chappell had undone the good work of Wright and had taken Indian cricket to the brink of disaster and it was left to Kirsten to resurrect the team into a band of world beaters. However, that is a fable of sorts created in the fumes of controversy, one of those fantasies Indian cricket fans love to indulge in. An unbiased analysis shows that his tenure was not too different in terms of success to the Wright era – and did include a series win in West Indies after a wait of 35 years, the first ever Test win on South African soil and a very similar run to Wright in ODIs including some sterling chases.

Besides, the merits of Bob Woolmer as a coach are too well-known to be repeated here. And Mickey Arthur did enjoy a long stint for South Africa before the Homework Gate started to close him out of the Australian stint. Finally, the left-handed Duncan Fletcher’s reign has not been studded with spectacular success either.

Yes, there is no way to deny there have been stalwart right-handed coaches as well — and not all southpaws have been overwhelmingly successful.

But, it is indeed curious that there has been an avalanche of left-handed coaches — at least men who used to make the square leg umpire run across to the other side when they got on strike during in their playing days. These men have masterminded tactics and plans that have resulted in much of the action we have seen in the recent past. Lehmann’s recent success for Australia underlines this trend in a big way. Seen from this angle, the choice of the coach for the Indian team after Fletcher may turn out to be quite interesting. Can we think of some high profile left-handers lining up for the job?

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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