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.