England’s white ball teams now have a battery of left arm seamers, and often go in with as many as three. The sudden profusion of left arm options is, however, a fairly recent development, as until recently it was a comparative rarity for England to select a left armer in their seam attack.
Perhaps the best known England left armer was JK Lever, and although he predated my time as an England fan, I do have vague memories watching him late in his career for Essex. Looking at his figures, it is a surprise he didn’t play more, taking 73 wickets in 21 tests at an average of 26, and 24 in 22 one day internationals at 29 with the highly respectable economy rate of 3.71. It seems surprising that he didn’t play more for England, particularly in the early to mid 80s given his fine record.
The first left arm seamer I watched live for England was Mark Ilott, who played a couple of tests in the dismal ashes year of 1993, and a couple more on tour in South Africa in 1994-5. A whole hearted county bowler, he was exposed against Test batsmen and played only five Tests, at an average of 45. To be blunt, he probably lacked the pace to really succeed at international level.
Alan Mullally, who debuted in 1996, has a more substantial record than Ilott. He played 19 tests and 50 ODIs, taking 58 test wickets at 31. He was brought in to try and give a poor England side some variety, and is perhaps remembered more for his dismal batting. However, he was a solid international bowler, albeit probably a better white ball bowler than red, taking 63 wickets in ODIs at an economy rate of less than four, indicating how well suited left arm seam bowlers can be for shorter form matches.
Honourable mentions also go to “Sam” Brown, who played one test in 1996, and “Smudge” Smith, a diminutive county bowler who again played a solitary test in 97, and missed out on a test wicket when Graham Thorpe dropped Matthew Elliott. Both could swing the ball consistently at county level but struggled in their sole appearances at tests. This was also, incidentally, a problem for Mullally. He bowled at a faster lick than Ilott but didn’t really swing the ball into the right-handers consistently enough.
Arguably the best left-armer England have had in recent years was Ryan Sidebottom. He debuted in 2001 but only became a regular in the side when he was recalled in 2007. Sidebottom had a fine career and ably replaced Matthew Hoggard as England’s swing specialist. At a decent height of 6 foot 4, and bowling in the mid to late 80s, he had a solid test record of 79 wickets in 22 games with a bowling average of 28. He was also a fine one day bowler, with an excellent yorker and changes of pace, contributing to England’s first ever World Cup trophy – the 2010 World T20.
Looking back, Sidebottom in my opinion should have played more for England. However, he suffered due to Duncan Fletcher’s perception that he lacked the pace to succeed at the highest level. His success after his belated recall, of course, refuted this theory – although he sometimes pushed his body too hard and picked up niggling injuries.
The modern era has resulted in a plethora of left-armers playing white ball cricket, particularly the T20 game. The first England tried in this format was Harry Gurney, who exhibited some decent skills “at the death” including slower balls, which have become such an integral part of a seamer’s armoury in white ball cricket.
Of those who have played more recently, David Willey is a consistent swing bowler and a solid lower order hitter, and Reece Topley is an exceptionally tall bowler with an excellent yorker and bouncer. It’s just a shame about his chronic injury problems.
England’s most prominent left-armer of recent times, however, has been Sam Curran. Although his Test record is currently modest, he is a formidable white ball bowler, particularly in T20 cricket, where his variety as well as his skiddy trajectory can make him difficult to play at the death. His batting, while erratic, can also be brutally effective, particularly on slow wickets
Whether Curran can develop into an effective Test bowler remains to be seen, but his relatively modest pace and lack of height means that he’ll need to swing the ball to threaten the batsmen. England also have a profusion of fast bowling options in Test cricket so his opportunities might be limited.
The rise of left-armers in county cricket – George Garton and Luke Wood spring to mind – may just be a quirk of nature, but the deluge of T20 leagues and their obsession with ‘match ups’ has undoubtedly benefitted the practitioners of this particular art. The fact that left armers may be able to cramp the batsmen may partially explain their popularity. However, with the exception of Lever and Sidebottom, few of the players mentioned above have really convinced at Test level. England have not produced a Wasim Akram, or a Mitchell Starc, or even a Mitchell Johnson. It is about time they did.
Interesting article. As a Durham fan I always thought Simon Brown was a bit unlucky not to get more than his solitary Test cap, but you’re probably right that he wasn’t quick enough to trouble international class batsmen.
For similar reasons, I still have doubts about Sam Curran in Tests. He’s like a left handed version of Woakes – good in England when the ball’s nipping about in favourable conditions, but will get found out abroad.
The history of English left arm seam/pace bowlers is a little more substantial than indicated in this post. William Mycroft (Derbyshire) was just too old for test cricket (he was into his late 30s when the inaugural test was played, and almost 40 by the time the first test in England was played, but he took his FC wickets at 12 a piece. Fred Morley (Notts) and Tom Emmett (Yorks), both left arm fast, did turn out for England in the early days of test cricket. Later George Hirst (Yorks) and Frank Foster (Warks) both had their moments bowling left arm pace for England. Harold Larwood’s preferred bowling partner both for Notts and for England was left arm fast medium Bill Voce. The trouble in terms of producing bowlers of serious pace, whichever arm they use to propel the ball, is that pitches and conditions in county cricket do tend to favour bowlers who move the ball around at just above medium pace rather than those who go all out for sheer speed.
Have you read hitting against the spin? That suggests that left arm pacers have a huge advantage. Even at 80 mph, the ball travels too fast for your eyes to properly the track the ball so you rely to an extent on what your brain expects to happen which would be based on a right arm seamer with a conventional action. Hence anyone with an unusual action or different angle has a huge advantage. 85mph from a left armer will seem faster than 85 mph from a right hander. It’s a pity Curran can’t find some extra pace.
” it is a surprise he didn’t play more”.
JK Lever’s problem was he mostly played in an era when Willis and Botham had two of the England seamer places nailed down. That left Lever competing with Mike Hendrick and Chris Old for usually one place. Lever had the better stamina but the other two were probably slightly better when fit and firing and both were better fieldsmen (and Old a better batsman). Lever looked unthreatening when he played against the very best of his era which meant the WI – although the other two didn’t exactly pull up any trees against them either it would be fair to say. Hendrick in particular did much better against Australia.
People tend to mock Old because of his injuries – but I prefer to remember a marathon spell he bowled into a gale that he bowled in Wellington that’s rather forgotten because England ultimately lost the game (through a combination of Richard Hadlee’s greatness and a weak batting line-up caught between Packer losses and not yet having discoered Gower and Gooch).
Old, Hendrick and Lever were excellent cricketers – Old was a very good bat too, a powerful hitter.
The problem was though, against the very best, their top speed of 82mph was just not good enough. Another of that ilk was Derek Pringle.
I remember in 1988, Pringle bowling against Windies whose premier batsman was in a belligerent mood. The BBC’s live broadcasting pundit was Ray Illingworth…….Pringle runs in to bowl…….SMACK.
“There he goes, four more, Derek Pringle’s just the right pace for Viv Richards.”
For me Topley is the best of the modern day bunch. With his pace and nip he would make an admirable partner for Robinson once Anderson, Broad, Wood and co retire. They may not have the pace of Ambrose and Walsh but they do have the height, which is a major advantage.
Personally in club cricket I never found lefties a major issue, I just adjusted my guard to play the line, but I guess their ability to bowl late inswing wasn’t as effective as JK. Stark and Johnson certainly had pace but never the control of line and length to make best use of this weapon, though on their day they could be devastating.
Topley has actually retired from first class cricket, I think. Body can’t take the punishment. It’s a shame.
Didn’t realise it was that serious. A sad loss of potential. Suppose he’ll still be available for white ball though.
Not sure he has retired unless recently. He played a couple of FC games for Essex last year.
My mistake guys. He didn’t play a single first class game between 2019-21 but never officially retired. He did indeed play for Surrey last year and apparently relished the experience 👏
Yes, but Surrey had to play him every other game to “manage his workload”, as they say. Basically he’s fragile like Wood and Stone.
Hardly surprising they are cautious with a guy who has had five stress fractures…..
Interesting to ponder why the West Indies have had so few left-arm seamers – Gary Sobers and Bernard Julian are the only ones that I can think of, though surely there must be the odd one I can’t recall.
They had a guy called Pedro Collins as well.