Ambidextrous bowler Yasir Jan bowling for Lahore Qalandars in a practice session

Twice the bowler: Yasir Jan bowls left (top) and right (bottom) in a practice session for Lahore Qalandars

© AFP/Getty Images


The future is in (both) their hands

Ambidextrous bowling is terribly hard, but a bunch of young players are beginning to uncover its enormous potential

Tim Wigmore  |  

One bright Queensland summer's day, 13-year-old Jemma Barsby was playing cricket in the front yard of a neighbour's house. She was fed up trying to get her brother out. Out of her exasperation came an idea to thwart him. "I thought, instead of losing my shit and storming inside, I would change it up and try something different. As a joke I decided to bowl left-handed and actually landed it. Like any batter he was confused as to which way it would spin and the different speed it came out at. It stopped him smacking me around."

Barsby's father Trevor, a former Queensland first-class cricketer, was watching. He told her to keep at the left-arm orthodox spin, while maintaining her usual right-arm offspin. Barsby's other coaches disagreed. They reasoned that it was hard enough to become a top-class bowler with one arm, let alone two.

But Barsby was stubborn, and enjoyed bowling with both arms. Over the last couple of years, training with Brisbane Heat in the Women's Big Bash League (WBBL), she sensed that she might even be able to pull it off in a professional game. While previous coaches had been suspicious of her skill, Andy Richards, her coach at Brisbane Heat, designed a training programme in which she bowled as many left-arm deliveries as right-arm ones, normally alternating between an over of each.

In a WBBL game against Sydney Sixers last December, Brisbane faced imminent defeat. Midway through an over of right-arm spin, Barsby informed the umpires that she would be switching arms. "The umpires' faces were like, 'What? You serious?'"

She was. Unperturbed by bowling to Ellyse Perry, one of the premier batters in the women's game, Barsby prepared to deliver her first left-arm delivery in professional cricket. "I can still remember I was nervous and bowled a full toss. But I continued to bowl it and they came out okay." She reckons she only bowled four balls for six runs, yet it felt momentous.


Yasir Jan: 'My next goal is Pakistan'

Barsby, who has just turned 22, still practises with both arms. Though she claimed 16 wickets with her offspin in the WBBL last season, she intends to try and take some with her left-arm spin this time around. "I am working on my left hand with our spin coach," she says. "I definitely need to bowl it more to get the pace and consistency right, to really perfect it and get good enough to be able to change on the spot."

Ambidextrous bowling is an extraordinary challenge. It is far more demanding than switch-hitting because it involves rewiring the entire body. The idea is almost barmy, the sort that would only entice cricketers of rare single-mindedness, daring and chutzpah. And it has been taken up by least five bowlers in high-level cricket globally - in the men's game, India's Akshay Karnewar, Sri Lanka's Kamindu Mendis and Pakistan's Yasir Jan, and Bangladesh's Shaila Sharmin and Australia's Barsby in the women's game.

None have yet established themselves as consistently formidable bowlers with both arms, but all are young enough to yet do so. Whether they do will be one of the most intriguing subplots in the sport's eternally evolving balance between bat and ball.

In two cases - Barsby and Yasir - ambidexterity developed from childhood, as they messed around with the idea. Yasir, from the town of Charsadda in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, was eight when he first decided to bowl with both arms. "This then became an obsession for me and I have continued to develop this style without any help from anyone," he later explained to Sky Sports. He is the lone fast bowler among the five.

For two others, the idea was suggested by a coach. Karnewar was a right-arm offspinner but unusually proficient in throwing with his weaker left arm, and at 13, his coach Balu Navghare suggested that he try to bowl with both arms. Sri Lanka's Mendis too was 13 when his coach suggested that he bowl right-arm spin alongside his left-arm spin; he bowled both in the Under-19 World Cup last year.

For Bangladesh's Sharmin, meanwhile, it was a pragmatic decision. When she was 21, she took stock of her prospects as a right-arm offspiner and concluded she "had no chance to get into the national team". She could throw well with her left arm since childhood, and decided to teach herself how to bowl left-handed too. She showed off her new skill in the World Cup qualifiers this year.

Ambidextrous bowling is not entirely new to the sport, but its previous glimpses have been more novelty circus act than competitive tool. Pakistan's Hanif Mohammad occasionally bowled with both arms in Test cricket, but usually in desperation - as when he did to Garry Sobers during his 365 not out in 1958, believed to be the first ever instance of ambidextrous bowling in international cricket - or to enliven dead Tests. Graham Gooch sometimes did the same, and Hashan Tillakaratne bowled spin with both arms in the last throes of Sri Lanka's thrashing of Kenya in the 1996 World Cup. In the U-15 World Challenge final at Lord's in 2000, Pakistan's Mohammad Naeem bowled spin with both arms, which caused a brief flurry of excitement. But Naeem never played a first-class match.

Akshay Karnewar bowls left-arm spin for Vidarbha in a T20 game

Akshay Karnewar bowls left-arm spin for Vidarbha in a T20 game © Prakash Parsekar

The scarcity of ambidextrous bowlers indicates the conservatism in cricket coaching. When Yasir began to be noticed by coaches, he told Sky Sports, they "were dead against it as they were worried that I might do physical damage to myself". Even Karnewar, who got the idea of bowling with his left-arm from a coach, was later told by other coaches to focus on one arm.

"As coaches we are often guilty of overcoaching and always trying to seek perfection as soon as possible - we are often not patient enough and want early results," says Andy Richards, who encouraged Barsby's efforts at Brisbane Heat. "People often can not get past the 'gimmick' factor and don't consider it a real option."

During his eight years as Australia head coach, from 1999 to 2007, John Buchanan was perhaps the first leading figure in the sport to suggest that cricketers could become genuinely ambidextrous, and he continues to believe so. "I am disappointed senior coaches are not spending time with fielders, batters and bowlers to develop new skills - particularly learning to throw with both hands," he says. "Coaches are too concerned about getting results today than developing skill sets that other teams will not have in the future."

Buchanan believes that ambidextrous skills are best learnt by cricketers while they are still children. "The double-sided players of the future must be grown from the nurseries of the schoolyard and backyard," he says. "Children need to be encouraged to enjoy physical activity first. In so doing, coaches will create environments of learning that enable those who can and want to explore double-sidedness as far as he or she can take it." It is revealing that of the five most prominent ambidextrous bowlers today, four are from Asia, where coaches and players have generally fetishised technique less than elsewhere.

The sport's conservatism - or perhaps the double standards in the attitude towards batsmen and bowlers - is evident in how bowlers must inform the umpire when they change their mode of delivery, but batsmen have no such compulsion when they switch-hit.

The MCC considered revising the law this year, mooting that bowlers would only have to declare what side of the wicket they would bowl from, not which arm they would use. "It was agreed that, from a safety perspective, the batsman should be entitled to know with which arm the bowler would deliver the ball," explains Fraser Stewart, the MCC Laws Manager. Which foot the umpires should monitor when calling a no-ball was another complication. The rule will be assessed over the coming years.

"Coaches are too concerned about getting results today than developing skill sets that other teams will not have in the future" John Buchanan, leading ambidexterity advocate

But the greatest obstacle of all is not coaching or the laws. Ambidextrous bowling is just really hard.

A sense of how difficult is provided by Major League Baseball. As a sport with more financial investment than cricket, and whose regular season comprises 162 matches, it offers more fertile ground for experimentation. Yet while switch-hitting batters were common in baseball long before they were in cricket, ambidextrous pitchers have been extremely rare.

There were at least four in the 19th century, but only two since: Greg Harris, who had a solid career as a right-handed pitcher and only pitched left-handed in a solitary game in 1995; and Pat Venditte, who pitched with both arms in four matches in 2015, switching arms depending on whether the batsman was left- or right-handed. Venditte still has a professional contract, but so far his greatest legacy to baseball has been to inspire one of the great bloopers in the history of sports headlines - when the East Oregonian newspaper declared him an "amphibious pitcher".

The big question is whether mastering ambidextrous bowling is actually worth it.

"I cannot see the effort and time it would take to develop would be worth it," says Kevin Shine, England's lead fast-bowling coach, outlining the conventional view within cricket coaching. "It is a big enough challenge to become world-class [when] bowling with one arm, let alone two. Quick bowling, in particular, places huge demands on the body. In theory, workloads would have to double [for a bowler] to become equally proficient with both arms. This would prove prohibitive and could put unnecessary stress on the player, which would almost certainly result in injury." Shine also notes the importance of rhythm for the best fast bowlers and fears this would be "disrupted by switching hands".

For all the excitement provided by the clips of Yasir knocking out the stumps with, by turns, his left and right-arm pace bowling - "I can bowl fast with my right hand and my left arm is good for swing - that's why I can give a surprise to batsman," he tells the Cricket Monthly - it is spin that provides the most plausible route to ambidexterity. Spinners can practise more than fast bowlers without getting injured, for one thing.

Jemma Barsby tried her hand at left-arm bowling as a way to prevent her brother from scoring endlessly during a backyard game

Jemma Barsby tried her hand at left-arm bowling as a way to prevent her brother from scoring endlessly during a backyard game © Getty Images

The most likely successful candidate is a left-arm spinner, like Mendis. Left-handers, only 12% of the world's population, generally have more functionality in their right hands than right-handers do in their left hands, so the leap to ambidexterity is smaller. Best placed are the 1% of people who are cross-handed, meaning they naturally switch between their left and right hands for different tasks.

Ambidextrous bowlers have "massive potential, especially spin bowlers", believes Wayne Spratford, a biomechanics expert from the University of Canberra, but like Buchanan he stresses that "it's really difficult to do this if it hasn't been done during early childhood" and that the concept must be embraced in youth cricket for it to permeate the senior professional game. In baseball, Venditte began training with both arms from the age of three.

Countering the conventional concerns over ambidexterity is a growing body of evidence that shows the dangers of premature specialisation in sport and how this can bring substantive injury risks. A recent study from the University of Wisconsin found that high-school students who specialised in a single sport sustained 60% more new lower-body injuries in a year than those who played a range of sports, because of the repetitive strain put on the same parts of their body. Buchanan thinks that young cricketers who bowl with both arms can play more cricket and develop their skills in a way that does not put them at greater risk of injury.

Ambidextrous bowling, says Buchanan, can also help players to become their own best coach. "One side of the body can teach the other side of the body." Doing so means that "the individual automatically needs to break the skill down into learning chunks so that they can transfer what is automatic in one side to the other. So they can effectively coach or teach themselves and others if needs be." It would help these players gain a greater understanding of their game, and make them more durable under pressure.

The most tangible benefit of ambidextrous bowling will be in the adaptability it provides teams. "Every situation in every game can be assessed or addressed from a range of options not available to the 'normal' team or players," Buchanan explains. If there is an area on the pitch helpful to a left-arm orthodox spinner and there is no one to exploit those conditions, an ambidextrous bowler - what Buchanan calls a "new allrounder" - can deploy their left-arm spin, rather than go around the wicket with right-arm offspin to locate the rough.

Left-handers, 12% of the world's population, have more functionality in their right hands than right-handers do in their left. Best placed are the 1% of people who are cross-handed

Across all formats of cricket there is, contrary to common perception, very little difference in how right- and left-handed batsmen perform when facing a right- or left-armer and whether or not the ball is turning away from the bat. Yet in one match in ten there could be a rough patch on the pitch when having an extra left- or right-armer could be the difference between victory and defeat. "Angles in cricket sometimes become as important as swing and movement, so using the crease width to negate a specific batsman could have a role to play across all the formats," says the fast-bowling coach Ian Pont. "There's a space for it. Whether the bowler is up to standard from both sides is another issue."

Numbers also cannot capture the potential impact in T20 of bowlers switching between left- and right-arm several times an over, or even every ball, thereby denying batsmen any semblance of rhythm. Many leading bowlers today believe that rather than the conventional good bowling - essentially, hitting the top of off stump with a little movement or spin - required in multi-day cricket, successful T20 bowling is underpinned by variety and unpredictability. Last year R Ashwin told ESPNcricinfo: "I basically think that six well-constructed bad balls could be the way to go forward in T20 cricket." What could be better constructed than an over sifting continuously from left to right arm, with no two balls remotely the same?

"In limited-overs matches it's very useful," says Karnewar, who is probably the most successful ambidextrous bowler today. "By switching I can confuse them and am able to play with batsmen's minds." So far he has an exceptional record in 50-over cricket - 34 wickets at 17.41 apiece - and has performed solidly in T20, earning a place in the Royal Challengers Bangalore squad. He has been much less successful in first-class cricket.

It is a tantalising thought: that T20, often derided as a format in which bowlers exist solely to provide batsmen with balls to hit out of the park, could usher in one of the most radical innovations in the history of bowling.

The real significance of the current coterie of ambidextrous bowlers is not what they achieve on the pitch. Instead, it is how they could inspire imitators, leading to broader acceptance and understanding. "It's just a beginning," says the bowling coach and former Pakistan cricketer Aaqib Javed. "The impact of Yasir Jan's discovery has proved to be a huge impact on young people."

At Lahore Qalandars' first annual talent hunt, Yasir stood out as a beautiful freak, the only ambidextrous bowler the coaches had ever seen. At their second talent hunt, after clips of Yasir had gone viral, Aaqib says over a dozen ambidextrous bowlers showed up. This was Malcolm Gladwell's tipping point in evidence: when an idea reaches a certain threshold of visibility, it can explode in popularity very quickly.

If reports are to be believed, baseballer Pat Venditte can not only pitch with both arms but can also pitch on land and water

If reports are to be believed, baseballer Pat Venditte can not only pitch with both arms but can also pitch on land and water © Getty Images

Rather like being genuinely bilingual, being a genuinely ambidextrous bowler is a skill that can only be acquired by being performed, almost unconsciously, from the start of life. So Yasir and the others might be pioneers, but they are unlikely to be the ones who showcase the best of ambidextrous bowling. That is probably a decade or more away, when more children are encouraged to bowl with both arms from their earliest years, and coaches and teams are less suspicious of the skill.

Statistically, left-handers are over-represented in most sports. They benefit because right-handers are "forced to engage in an asymmetrical battle for which they're poorly prepared, against an opponent who's a dab hand at dealing with this type of asymmetry," Rik Smits explains in The Puzzle of Left-Handedness. The benefits of difference would be far greater for genuinely ambidextrous bowlers. That has certainly been Karnewar's experience ever since he first switched arms in an U-16 match. The batsman, he says, "was confused and looked at me and said, 'What did you say?' It was quite funny."

It is a scene that explains why individualistic and mischievous bowlers around the world are pursuing this new frontier of bowling. The possibilities are still unknown, but exploring them should be a lot of fun.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts