More than enough of the left around


CRICKET has always played a leading part in the mad, mad world but in the last few weeks things have taken a turn for the worse.

When Pakistan and West Indies are short of a spot to play, they have been permitted to set up their stumps in Sharjah. Well, fair enough, the old desert pitch has a background and plenty of fans, not to mention any number of bookmakers; but can it be true that the authorities also considered Tunisia?

Where next? Kabul, where cricket flourished under the Taliban because cricketers maintain discipline by not showing their legs? The Congo? Tibet? Timbuktu? The Falkland Islands, 20 years after their war?

Or Komodo? A bunch of globe-trotting enthusiasts will leave Britain shortly to play the first match on the island, where the spectators may include the terrifying dragons. Adrian Furness, a showbusiness personality, and spokesman for The Old Bedfordians, explains: "On our recent travels we met a man who had just finished a lodge for visitors on Komodo. He's also a cricket nut so he has used his bulldozers to level a playing field and we will be one side in the first game."

ICC may have to search out a new venue if, as seems likely, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe maintains his ban on foreign journalists. Half a dozen matches will be played there during the 2003 World Cup and we cannot have the games ignored by the media, can we?

As for the rest of kingdom cricket, there's been a sinister step forward. It's the Latin word for "left"; and there seem to be more than enough men of the left around at the moment. (The Latin for right, incidentally, is dexter which pleases Ted Dexter, he of the Calcutta smog and his memories of someone called Devon Malcolm.)

When Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, contrasting left-handers, hit yet another century opening stand and their fourth double hundred partnership in six Tests, I started to count just what their sort had achieved in the last few months.

Believe me, I'm right-handed and I know about these things. It's frightening.

Look at the captaincy stakes for a start. Nasser Hussain bats right-handed, bowls an orthodox leg break, throws with his right hand; but writes left-handed. How sinister is that?

Sourav Ganguly cannot disguise the fact that he is a left-hand bat for all his right arm bowling; after three or four years in the darkness the real Brian Lara has suddenly re-emerged to blast the Sri Lankan bowling out of the park.

Wasim Akram is no longer the Pakistan captain - it's not by any means a permanent job, is it? - but he leads the fast bowlers of the world, with his 414 Test wickets and his 446 one-day international victims. Nearly 900 international wickets is a bid for world domination. These people must be stopped.

Sanath Jayasuriya is the eighth Sri Lankan captain and still one of the most destructive one-day batsmen in the world; unless you count in Saeed Anwar, another left-hander, now in denial over retirement plans, Graham Thorpe, captain of England for half a Test, Adam Gilchrist, the losing skipper at Headingley last summer and Michael Bevan.

Andy Flower has again surrendered the captaincy of Mugabeland to concentrate on scoring all Zimbabwe's runs besides keeping wickets and looking sad when his mates fail.

As for Bangladesh, their captain Khaled Masud, a right handed wicket-keeper, is probably so dizzy after all those crushing defeats that he wishes a left-hander - any left-hander - was in charge. Their time will come.

In ancient days we used to feel rather superior to left-handers who were ignored for the great honours because they were - how shall we put it politely? - odd.

"Left-hand spinners," Ray Illingworth, used to say when he was chairman of everything and still dreaming, aged 64, that he might play if only his back was all right, "are very strange people. Mad, most of 'em. Even Don Wilson, my mate at Yorkshire. Nice fella most of the time, but at one stage lost it completely. Could not let the ball go. Worst case of the yips I have ever seen."

I thought back to Phil Edmonds who tried a bouncer when he was supposed to be bowling spin, and Phil Tufnell, who was briefly locked away in an Australian rest house for those having a funny turn, and wondered if Illingworth might not be right. He usually is. I mean, it doesn't happen to ordinary, right-handed folk.

James Lillywhite was the first England captain and he batted and bowled left-handed in the first Test but the selectors soon learnt their lesson and there were 27 more right-handed skippers before they called in Percy Chapman and then Jack "Farmer" White.

Chapman began as a golden boy but finished as a drunk begging pennies to buy his next whisky; the Farmer was not just odd, he was the first spinner to tamper with the ball. Young Somerset kids tried to avoid fielding in the covers. The seam was raised so high while Mr. White - an amateur, of course, and therefore above suspicion - was bowling that it used to cut open their hands.

There were another 13 captains and a World War before England brought in Donald Carr for one match and then, after another six right-handers, called up Brian Close. Was he left-handed? I don't think he knew himself.

He batted left-handed, but he bowled fast, medium-fast, medium and slow all right-handed. He was as strong as a wild buffalo, and his party tricks were amazing.

So was his driving - behind the wheel of a car - but as I don't want to get him into trouble I will not go into details. Just let's say the roads were safer when he was at home in bed between 1950 and 1980.

Close began by playing golf to professional standard left-handed and then reached the same level right-handed. Don't even ask why?

John Edrich and Mark Butcher headed England in one Test each but David Gower was the leader for 32 Tests in which his captaincy won back the Ashes and the series in India in 1984-85. He lost almost everything else.

Lovely man, David, but just as strange as the other left-handers. He made batting look easy and natural and with the blond curly hair and his politeness and diffidence you might have imagined he flew in from Olympus.

He hit catches to slip and gully more often than you have had mobile phone calls this week; and he still averaged nearly 45 in Tests but only made 53 first class centuries. It's not right, is it? I hope the selectors don't hold a southpaw grip against Marcus Trescothick who is next in line.

Australia have only had 11 left-handers as captain in 125 years, including Allan Border who did the job more often than anyone else and Mark Taylor, who picked up the succession without so much as a blink.

South Africa have had only four out of 28; West Indies seven since 1928; New Zealand three of 25; India six between Vinoo Mankad and Sourav; and Pakistan only four.

I'd much rather see a 13-year-old make his mark in Test cricket as the Korean-born Jae An has done recently playing in the shadow of Tiger Woods. If golf can find a lad as young as An to raise the admiration of the senior players surely cricket can unearth a batsman almost as young.

It is where the Pakistanis are slipping up. I mean some of their players are in their early twenties already and we have not seen a genuine youngster since Hasan Raza aged 14 in 1996-97.

One of their traditions is that Imran Khan sees a photograph of an unnamed baby and rushes him into the Test team before his second birthday. This habit must be maintained. Have they no national pride left?

This year will be much more interesting if ICC's publicity people can combine a Test match in front of dragons and a few islanders and featuring a side of left-handers to overwhelm the proper players led by a 12-year-old?

The television companies would love the idea since it would enable them to combine "live footage" with "pretties" of the dragons lying in wait for any player foolish enough to stand still in the outfield.

Cricket just needs to use more imagination.