Shaheen to probe frailty against left-arm quicks
After withstanding West Indies’ formidable attack in the past two Tests, England’s batsmen will now face a more varied challenge. In hot conditions that could be tailor-made for their bowling lineup, Pakistan will unleash an attack that combines the English-style seam of Mohammad Abbas with the raw pace of Naseem Shah, and Yasir Shah’s leg-spin with perhaps also Shadab Khan’s, too.
Yet, for all these threats, perhaps the greatest challenge of all will come from Shaheen Afridi.
Eight Tests into his career, Shaheen already has the makings of a brilliant bowler: a 6ft 6in leftarmer, combining pace that can approach 90 mph and new-ball swing. Shaheen also has the classic quick bowler’s tools when the shine has worn off: the combination of a ferocious bouncer, lethal yorker and reverse swing. He is extraordinarily versatile for a 20-year-old. In an age when the demands needed to thrive playing all formats have never been greater, Shaheen is a menace across Test, one-day international and Twenty20 cricket alike. It adds up to a compelling package.
Shaheen is also exactly the kind of bowler against whom England fare worst. Since the start of 2017, they average only 24.2 against leftarm pace bowlers in Tests. Of the nine teams in the World Test Championship, only Bangladesh have fared worse during this period.
In both England’s series against New Zealand since 2018, a Kiwi left-armer – Trent Boult and then Neil Wagner – was top wicket-taker and player of the series. Perhaps England were fortunate that Mitchell Starc, Australia’s left-arm paceman, was restricted to playing only one Ashes Test last summer.
Some of England’s best players are vulnerable to this line of attack. Since 2018, Joe Root’s overall Test average of 40 falls to 34 against left-arm pace, while Ben Stokes’s average of 42 in this time falls to 25.
Left-arm pace has also harassed England’s lower order: Chris Woakes averages 12 since 2018, while Stuart Broad averages only three.
England’s relative weakness speaks to the challenge of facing left-armers. Bowlers such as Shaheen pose specific technical challenges, with the angle of attack different. Shaheen is adept at the classic left-armer’s mode of attack with the new ball: bowling from over the wicket to right-handers, and then swinging the ball back in.
Some batsmen can struggle to get their front pad out of the way to such deliveries, leading them to open up their stance – so their front knee points towards mid-on, rather than straight down the ground.
To left-handed batsmen, leftarmers also pose a different challenge. In many ways, the left-arm style is similar to that of right-armers bowling round the wicket and cramping batsmen for space – which has been startlingly effective in Tests in recent years.
Yet perhaps the biggest advantage left-armers have is unfamiliarity. Batsmen are accustomed to facing right-arm pace; they simply have far less scope to practise against left-arm quick bowling.
From boxing to baseball, cricket and beyond, sports scientists have documented the southpaw advantage: there is a disproportionate number of left-handers in these sports. While left-handers comprise only 10 per cent of the population worldwide, left-arm bowlers – including left-arm spinners – now bowl 22 per cent of balls in international cricket, the academic Florian Loffing has found.
The reason for this advantage across sport, essentially, is they benefit from an asymmetrical practice advantage: while left-handers are used to playing right-handers, right-handers play left-handers much more rarely.
Perhaps only Australia have such a rich history of left-arm bowlers as Pakistan – the land of Wasim Akram, Mohammad Amir, Wahab Riaz and now Shaheen. If the hosts display a scintilla of weakness against Shaheen, they may have to brace themselves for more of the same, with the tourists having brought two other such bowlers – Riaz and Usman Shinwari.