Left is not right in Test cricket
If David Warner’s rich form propelled Australia to the World Cup semi-finals, Steve Smith took the baton from his former deputy to plunder 774 runs in the drawn Ashes series. Smith was still among runs in the World Cup, but Warner’s puzzling dip in form in Tests has left him in a precarious position. Warner’s brutal Ashes expose, orchestrated by Stuart Broad’s incoming deliveries, was executed to perfection. Warner’s average in England before this Ashes was 37.06. Following scores of 2, 8, 3, 5, 61, 0, 0, 0, 5 and 11, setting the lowest total (95 runs) for an opener across five Tests, it has plummeted to 26.04
Warner’s loss of Test form notwithstanding, there has been a general paucity of quality left-handed batsmen whose returns have been at par with right-handers. Exit of the likes of Alastair Cook, Kumar Sangakkara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Graeme Smith has started to reflect on the overall averages, with right-handed batsmen starting to pull ahead of the left-handed. If the last decade is taken into consideration, right-handed batsmen have been better in terms of runs scored, centuries hit and averages. But if two consecutive five-year periods (2009-14 and 2014-19) are analysed, the gap is more visible in the last five years.
The most obvious reason is the retirement of some of the best left-handed batsmen of this generation. Cook scored 8,818 runs in this decade, far more than anyone. The next best in the left-handed list is Warner, who has scored 6,458 runs. Two left-handed batsmen with the highest averages in the period starting January 1, 2010 Sangakkara (61.4) and Chanderpaul (60.33) have retired. The next best following Warner are Sri Lanka’s Dimuth Karunaratne (36.93), Bangladesh’s Tamim Iqbal (41.78) and England’s Ben Stokes (35.27). Though Stokes had a great Ashes series where he aggregated 441 runs in five Tests, he needs a few more of those series to improve his average. Rest haven’t been consistent enough.
Then there are batsmen like Shikhar Dhawan who have been phased out. For someone who had started his Test career with 187 against Australia and averaged 115 in two Tests in New Zealand during the 2014 tour, Dhawan couldn’t make a huge dent on overseas tours more frequently. Aggregating 284 runs in seven Tests at 20.28 in England, 167 runs in three Tests in Australia at 27.83 and 108 runs in three Tests in South Africa at 18 finally saw the selectors running out of patience.
New ‘Fab four’
With not enough quality left-handed batsmen around, right-handers are dominating the scene completely at the moment. And leading the way are Smith, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root.
These ‘Fab four’ are indeed the world’s best by a distance. Smith has shone with his outrageous numbers, followed by the sustained brilliance of Kohli and Williamson. Root, who may have witnessed a slump in his Test centuries—especially in Ashes—is the only one and the fastest-ever to cross 7,000-run mark. This could be attributed to the fact that Root has played most Tests (64) while the next three have not even played 50.
The top five right-handed batsmen of Test cricket—which has now-retired Hashim Amla above Williamson on the basis of runs—have together notched up 108 centuries since Jan 1, 2010, compared to 78 from the top five left-handed batsmen in the same period.
Among the active batsmen, Warner is the best left-handed batsman with an average of 45.47 whereas each of the top four right-handed batsmen average more than at least 47. While each of the top five right-handers, including Amla, have scored a minimum of 6,000 runs, the others (including Sangakkara) have not even amassed 5,000 runs in this decade. Compare the averages of two consecutive five-year period and you will find it’s still neck-and-neck in the period between 2009 and 2014. In the next five years, right-handed batsmen are simply more prolific than their left-handed counterparts.
In his Test comeback after serving a year-long ban due to the ball-tampering scandal, Smith aggregated 774 runs at 110.57 with three centuries and as many fifties in seven innings across four Tests of an away series. Kohli (46.12), Root (42.45) and Williamson (44.45) too maintain very healthy career averages in away series. But the numbers diminish rapidly for left-handed batsmen. Cook averaged above 45 both home and away, but no other left-hander has even crossed the mark of 40. Karunaratne’s average drops to 28.8 while Warner averages 33.17 compared to his career average of 45.47.
Another statistic highlights why Smith is ranked the world’s best Test batsman. Thrice Smith has scored in excess of 600 and twice in excess of 700: 774 v England in 2019, 769 v India at home in 2014-15 and 687 v England at home in 2017-18. Among left-handers, only Cook has totaled more than 700 (766) once, in his series Down Under in 2010-11.
Cook had also scored 562 runs in India in 2012-13. But Warner is more dominating between the two in this parameter, with three totals of 500 and more: 592 v New Zealand at home in 2015-16, 543 v South Africa in 2013-14 and 523 v England at home in Ashes 2013-14. Right now, it seems that for natural reasons left-handed batsmen’s aura have taken a hit after the exit of the greats. Despite his Ashes slump, Warner still looks to be the lone left-handed batsman apart from Stokes who is capable of scoring heavily consistently. But the likes of Usman Khawaja, Tom Latham, Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock need to cover a lot of ground to get left-handers back into contention.