Sha­heen to probe frailty against left-arm quicks

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport | Cricket - By Tim Wig­more

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.

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