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17 December 2017

As evidence grows of southpaw supremacy, have we reached peak left-handedness?

In sport, a critical mass of right-handers are required to make left-handers look good.

By Ed Smith

Among persecuted minorities, left-handers stand out as distinctly stoic. They have been hounded by historic prejudice. The physical manifestations of right-hand bullying – the right-handed school desk and inkwell, the beatings given to innocent lefties whose handwriting sloped the “wrong” way, the psychological suffering that displaced left-handers suffered – all this is only part of the injustice.

The allegorical stigma runs even deeper. The Protestant world view had a special term for Catholics: “left-footers”. If lefties weren’t heretics, they were Satanists. In medieval woodcuts, the devil baptised his followers with his left hand.

Apart from the occasional counter-example – such as “left field”, which provides this column with a title – words associated with the left usually come with health warnings. (Disclosure: I write with my left hand, though I was a right-handed batsman.)

When my wife and I named our son Dexter, my university tutor asked if, for the sake of consistency, we planned to name a second child Sinister. In a cowardly move, we ignored the advice. For only when little Sinisters and Sinistras gambol happily around the playground can we say that the struggle for justice by left-handers in a right-leaning world is complete.

For left-handed readers – estimated at just over ten per cent of the population – I bring mixed news. The good news is that in certain professions left-handedness brings major benefits. The bad news, however, is that as evidence grows of current left-handed supremacy, it will rebound against lefties in the future. A forlorn possibility looms: are we witnessing “peak left-handedness”?

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It has long been known that left-handedness offers a competitive advantage in some professional sports. But the extent is uneven across different sports. According to Florian Loffing, from the University of Oldenburg in Germany, left-handedness is most useful in sports that demand quick reaction times. That’s why leftie over-representation is highest in sports such as baseball, cricket and table tennis. For this reason, the naturally right-handed Rafael Nadal was forced by his uncle to play left-handed.

I can vouch for the awkwardness of competing against left-handers. My most challenging moments when batting came against left-arm swing bowlers (Wasim Akram was the best of the lot). Almost all right-handed batsmen say the same thing.

Historically, this imbalance may have caused an evolutionary advantage. Left-handedness is partly heritable. Loffing suggests that the tactical advantages enjoyed by our left-handed ancestors, which increased their chances of winning fights with right-handed enemies, promoted “the maintenance of left-handedness itself”.

But left-handers should look away now. In sport, left-handers cannot ascend forever, for several connected reasons. The first is obvious. Unusualness cannot be expanded indefinitely. As increased opportunity is invested in left-handers, the likelihood of lefties having a disorientating effect on opponents can only decrease.

Secondly, a critical mass of right-handers are required to make left-handers look good. Indeed, in some domains left-handers are already cannibalising themselves. Limited-overs cricket provides an example, where batting teams continue to try to score ever faster. Right-handed batters usually find it easier to hit boundaries against right-handed off-spin bowlers than against left-handed spin bowlers. (Left-handed batsmen also find it easier to hit left-arm spinners.) Given that right-handed batsmen outnumber left-handed batsmen, modern coaches and selectors have gradually turned against (and deselected) right-handed off-spin bowlers.

But wait. As a counter-strategy, teams started picking left-handed batsmen to slog the now dominant left-handed spinners. It turns out, when competing against an opposition deploying several left-handed batsmen, teams need right-arm spinners more than ever. So the ascent of the lefty spinner quickly reached its natural limits.

This is a classic example of a wider phenomenon inside competitive industries. One of the most perceptive insights I read about sport this year appeared in an essay about finance. The author was the celebrated American investor and thinker Howard Marks (a leftie, I might add) whose newsletter this summer featured this advice:

Always bear in mind George Soros’s “theory of reflexivity”, which I paraphrase as saying that the efforts of investors to master the market affect the market they’re trying to master. In other words, how would golf be if the course played back: if the efforts of golfers to put their shot in the right place caused the right place to become the wrong place?

… It’s tempting to think of the investment environment as an unchanging backdrop… Then all you have to do is figure out the right course of action and take it. But what if the environment is a dependent variable? Does the behaviour of investors alter the environment in which they work? Of course it does.

The metaphor works both ways: it illuminates sport as well as investment. Put simply, as more coaches pursue the same tactic, the less effective it becomes. The right play becomes the wrong one.

To retain the maximum benefit of being left-handed, in other words, lefties must hope the extent of their advantages never becomes common knowledge. They ought to seek high attainment with as little fanfare as possible. A winning strategy would be to exploit age-old prejudices by preserving them.

Perhaps lefties have been on to this all along, playing a very clever long game by orchestrating fake news against themselves.

In conclusion, long may it remain a right-hander’s world. 

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special