Why can't we make yorkers great again?
"Where has the real good yorker gone in the game? Where's it gone? It's not bowled enough," says Kevin Pietersen. Ravi Shastri replies, "It's not practised enough." Pietersen agrees and adds, "Lasith Malinga before every game he bowled, all he would do is bowl at a cone, and you know he was trying to do one thing, and he was a master."
Ah, the yorker of yore, yes, why can't we go back to that time, and make yorkers great again?
This is a pretty typical conversation you hear on cricket commentary. This one came during the opening game of this season's IPL. Just after the conversation fizzled out, something bizarre happened: Deepak Hooda went across until he was outside off stump, and then he went behind his stumps to play a shot.
Pietersen made a huge deal about Hooda going behind the bowling crease. But the shot was a perfect explanation of why the talk about yorkers these days is so poor. Bowlers do bowl yorkers, and they do practise bowling yorkers. But no cone jumps outside off stump and then behind the stumps. Cones stand still.
In 2016, more successful yorkers were bowled than in any other IPL season before it.
ESPNcricinfo analysts have decided that a successful yorker is a ball that lands on a length where it yorks the bat. It couldn't be more simple. If it bounces too short, it's a half-volley; if the batsman hits it on the full, they mark it as a full toss. It doesn't matter if the ball was a wicket or a four - to us they are yorkers.
What we don't have data on is unsuccessful yorkers - balls that were bowled the perfect length, but where the batsman changed the length through his footwork or shot, because there is no camera permanently above the wicket feeding us that data. We know that hardly ever is a full toss intentionally bowled, and that many are failed yorkers.
Even without the empirical evidence that proves more successful yorkers are now bowled, it makes sense. In ODIs we have almost doubled the number of sixes in the last ten years, from 4.75 per match in 2006 to 8.73 in 2016. T20 seems as if it's about to free itself of cricket norms and reach for the stars. Run rates in both formats are up, and bowlers are gasping for air. Would they really not try the ball even a casual fan would tell them is the hardest to score off?
|Tournament||Successful yorkers||Per match|
The historical data on the number of yorkers bowled per match in the IPL says a little about what has happened to batting in T20. An average of over four successful yorkers were bowled each game in the first three seasons. Then, as the real improvisations in batting took full effect, that dropped to under four, and in 2013 it was at 3.05. Since then bowlers have fought back and 2016 was the first season on record that was over five.
The types of bowlers who have produced the most successful yorkers have also changed. In the first season of the IPL it was Munaf Patel and Glenn McGrath: tall, not very fast, accurate bowlers. Bowlers of that type have never led the league in yorkers since. The only time tall bowlers make that list is when they are out-and-out speed guys like Shaun Tait and Morne Morkel - every other bowler is regular-human size, not giant-fast-bowler size.
So what happened after that one season?
The data is conclusive: short, accurate bowlers like the Kumars Vinay, Praveen and Bhuvneshwar all feature in this list, as does fellow shorty Ashok Dinda. Umesh Yadav, Brett Lee and Dirk Nannes are there with their extra pace. None are that tall. And the bowlers with unpickable slower balls or weird actions, like Dwayne Bravo, Malinga, Jasprit Bumrah and Mustafizur Rahman are well accounted for.
The images that we have when we think of yorkers are of Joel Garner, Waqar Younis, Curtly Ambrose, Darren Gough and McGrath rattling stumps. Guys like Waqar and Gough still exist - shorter guys with more round-arm actions - but the taller guys have all but disappeared. As almost nothing in cricket happens by accident, the reason bowlers of this type don't bowl as many yorkers anymore is that their yorkers aren't working.
A tall, accurate bowler has a larger chance of getting a yorker wrong than a shorter, skiddier bowler - that's just science. Taller bowlers often have classical actions, as they are trying to make the most of their height, meaning nothing of their actions is a surprise for batsmen. And while some taller bowlers have great slower balls - Clint McKay is a perfect recent example - most of them haven't had to master skullduggery, because in the lower levels of cricket their height and pace was more than enough.
The perfect bowler of a yorker in T20 would be a 90mph unorthodox bowler with a low-arm action who has a hard-to-pick slower ball. Aka Malinga.
When I was a teenager, the yorker tormented me. At the start I'd never got out to many, but then suddenly it was every second dismissal for months on end. This wasn't just to the odd express bowler; I missed some kind-old-man medium pace as well. Not being very talented, all I could rely on was thinking my way out.
And when I thought about yorkers, I realised how silly they were. I loved to drive; I could drive all day, full tosses and half-volleys, and yet when the ball was in between, instead of taking a big step down the wicket and playing a cover drive, I suddenly froze and was trying to dig them out.
Did a yorker even exist, or was it a psychological construct that slowed my feet? Was I being tormented by myself and not the bowlers?
The truth is somewhere in the middle. At pace, I don't have the skill to just take a step forward and knock back a low full toss. Really accurate bowlers also found that exact yorker length that makes you doubt you can change the length. And then there is the surprise factor. In most proper cricket innings, the yorker is one of the balls you are least likely to face, so having an entire plan for it seemed kind of weird. Eventually I just reduced my backlift and went back to only being dismissed by a reasonable number of yorkers.
There is obviously a science as to why the yorker is a good ball. If you try and play an attacking shot, your bat won't be flush with the ground, opening up a chance for the ball to go under it. Unlike other balls, it makes you feel like you need to dig, not bat, which changes the way you bat, and often the face of the bat is not as straight. Plus, hitting the ground with the bat means you are not in control of it. And for generations the toe of the bat had the effectiveness of a piece of wilted lettuce.
But batting is no longer a skinny kid with a cheap bat and endless cricket dread when facing a yorker; it has grown up too.
In the '90s, kiddies, things were different. If you wanted someone to go in and bash the ball, you often sent in a pinch-hitter, who was usually a big, strong bowler, like Pat Symcox or Craig McDermott. Batsmen hit the odd six, but if you needed a bunch, you sent in a strongman bowler or a strapping allrounder.
Batsmen weren't all little guys or slim-hipped fleet-of-foot types, but they were regular human size. Sure, cricket had flirted with bigger batsmen, but batsmen weren't built for power. Lance Klusener only made international cricket because he was an allrounder. He wasn't built like a batsman, and when he started in first-class cricket, he batted 11. In Tests, he batted as low as ten. But when he became a batsman, it was spectacular.
At the 1999 World Cup he made 281 runs, averaging 140 at a strike rate of 122. The top order had been weaponised since 1996, but the middle order was still a place for human calculators like Michael Bevan, Russel Arnold and Chris Harris, with an allrounder thrown in to hopefully slog a few. Klusener combined both roles, and hit boundaries like an axeman while producing like a calculator; a middle-overs killing machine.
There was no real way to contain him in that period, and that is largely because of what he did to yorkers. Other batsmen, like Carl Hooper, Martin Crowe and Dean Jones, had tried ways to make yorkers easier to play, with shorter backlifts or by batting deep in the crease or way out of it. But Klusener didn't just chip yorkers around and score the odd boundary; he crushed the life out of them. Other batsmen struggled to get power from low full tosses; if you slightly overpitched to Klusener, he hit the ball with Thor's hammer through cover or midwicket. If you underpitched even slightly, he'd destroy the ball over long-on. And even when you hit the perfect length, he dropped his massive bat made of anvils on the ball and it sped off square of the wicket.
Klusener's bat seemed ideal to handle yorkers, and he was range-hitting almost a generation before it became commonplace.
Now there are many batsmen of Klusener's size and strength. Batsmen, not bowlers, are now the big-muscle guys. The bats are also better, the middle longer, there is much more wood at the bottom, and they are lighter than when Klusener was playing. Range-hitting and getting your front foot out of the way are now just everyday cricket.
The shots have changed too. Cricket has a long history of batsmen coming up with a shot that completely changes what bowlers have to do. In modern cricket, short fine-leg came up into the circle as batsmen started peppering the leg-side boundary in front of square, and so Douglas Marillier played a lap to that position. Ryan Campbell took it a step further. And then there was Tillakaratne Dilshan's scoop, which was essentially an overhead sweep shot. None of those shots was specifically aimed at stopping yorkers, but all of them played a part in yorkers coming under attack.
The one that seems to have directly come from yorkers was the helicopter shot that Santosh Lal gave his friend MS Dhoni. Instead of a normal drive with weight on the front foot, this was played off the back foot, and because of it, a yorker often became a half-volley. It's about looser wrists, and flicking a ball in the air that you would normally have to hit down on, turning yorkers and near-yorkers into sixes.
Recently Nasser Hussain did an incredible masterclass on the yorker. He starts off with a bunch of cones placed around the crease from just outside leg stump all the way to wide on the off side. The space enclosed, he explains, is where you could bowl a successful yorker five or ten years ago. Gradually, for a variety of reasons (reverse swing going, umpires getting stricter on leg-side wides) he starts removing cones until he's standing within a tiny space.
This space is bigger than the handkerchief that bowlers claimed to hit when practising bowling yorkers in the old days, but not that much bigger. It is there in this tiny little yorker place that he asks, even after allowing for everything he has just said: "Why aren't they finding the hole more often?"
These cones, like the ones Malinga aims at before his bowling, don't move. The yorker hole is as small as it has ever been, and it moves more than ever before, depending on the batsman's whims. The damn thing can run behind the stumps, be outside leg, or not be on the pitch on the off at all. Not to mention bigger batsmen and bats, better training, smaller grounds, and a format that practically begs for more sixes to be hit. And people ask why they're not finding the hole?
We have all heard a commentator, or our drunk uncle, say, "Just bowl 24 yorkers, it's simple." It isn't simple. Garner couldn't bowl 24 successful yorkers in a row. And that is with a batsman standing in roughly the same place on the crease each ball. If you went at 0.8 runs per yorker (the rough average across IPL history) for 18 balls, and the other balls in your spell went for two sixes, two fours and a couple of twos, you're still looking at almost ten an over.
Some modern batsmen actually like it when a bowler tries six yorkers in an over. It means they can formulate a plan, and they know that even if they don't move in the crease much, one will be over- or under-pitched, and that one is gone. Five singles and a six is still 11 an over.
Not all modern batsmen have power, not all improvise. There are some batsmen - let's call them Pakistani - who are still playing T20 cricket in a pre-Klusener way, where against pace everything must go over midwicket. Other batsmen don't have a lot of power, so usually they play their power shots to leg, so bowling wide yorkers to them can restrict them when the ball gets softer or they get tired.
Most batsmen now do play all the shots. England bowled well to Carlos Brathwaite at the start of his innings in the World T20 final. Chris Jordan went with a wide yorker so that Brathwaite couldn't use his power. Then David Willey tried straighter yorkers to cramp Brathwaite. He was new to the crease, he couldn't find his timing, and the full bowling was doing the job. Then Brathwaite realised that this was their plan, so when Willey tried another one, he played a lap scoop, the first one he had ever played in a match, and it went for four. That was his only boundary before the final over.
Against Ben Stokes he stood deep in his crease, and after trying one into the pitch first ball, Stokes didn't nail one good yorker in the next three he attempted. Had he tried a ball that wasn't a yorker, he might have at least made Brathwaite think. Instead Brathwaite, like he did against Willey, knew where they were going to be, and used it to win the game.
You could use Stokes' over to prove how important yorkers can be, but it also shows what happens when you miss them now. The reward for yorkers has never been greater, but neither has the risk.
When you look at data for the best Test bowlers, even on surfaces that help them, with no one moving around the crease or trying to slaughter each ball, they have groupings where the balls can pitch up to a metre apart, and usually more. And that is a bowler who is trying to run in and hit the same spot ball after ball for an entire day, whose body is grooved into that length by muscle memory. And yet they can't do it. If they miss by 25 centimetres, looking for a good back-of-a-length ball, or a well-flighted offbreak, not much happens.
Try missing a yorker by that much. The ball is gone.
It started with coaches putting shoes on the crease and then asking their quicks to hit them. Then some bowling coaches tried having a piece of string set up a few inches above the ground and the bowlers have to bowl under them. Now there is a different system for England bowlers like Jordan.
He puts one cone out for the wide yorker, one for the straight yorker, and one for the yorker down leg, for when the batsman backs away and gives himself room. Then as he comes in to bowl, his coach, Ottis Gibson, shouts out which colour cone he needs to aim for as he hits the crease. It is still not as exact as bowling to a batsman doing the same thing, but it's clear that bowlers are trying to work this out. Bowlers have never practised yorkers more, or smarter, than they do now.
There is a clip online of Chris Woakes, Jimmy Anderson and Jordan bowling that shows them attempting to pitch it underneath a specially designed gate. The clip shows how good Jordan is at this; the other two regularly hit the gate (and Woakes and Anderson are renowned as very accurate bowlers) whereas Jordan regularly goes under the gate and hits the stump. The ECB put this video online, apparently to show how often their bowlers were hitting the yorker length; but even so, their bowlers did not hit it every ball. And one commenter, CallMeSir, said, "They play international cricket!! They should be hitting yorkers every time."
In basketball, if you are fouled when shooting, you receive a free throw. A shot with the game clock stopped, with no defenders in your face, where the player can take his time, from 15 feet, a shot that has been practised their entire life. NBA players in total still only hit that shot 77% of the time. They play in the best basketball league on earth! They should be hitting their free throws every time.
Malinga was the first great T20 bowler. In seven IPL seasons he has 143 wickets at 17, with an economy rate of 6.67. Even as his pace has gone down over the years, even as his knee has troubled him and his midriff has occasionally ballooned out, he has been incredible year after year. And in all seven seasons he has played, he has led the league the in number of successful yorkers bowled.
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Of Malinga's 143 IPL wickets, 18% are from yorkers. The next best is 8% for Tait. Tait also has the second-highest percentage of yorkers bowled (among bowlers who have bowled in over 20 games) with 6.13% - Malinga is at 9.48%. And you want to know how hard it is to bowl yorkers? The man that everyone in cricket says is the best yorker bowler in cricket bowls more full tosses than yorkers. And we don't even have data on how many half-volleys he bowls.
Malinga leads the league in percentage of full tosses bowled, 11.49%. From those, he has around 12% of his wickets. So from around 20.9% of his deliveries he takes 30.07% of his wickets. The next closest are Bumrah and Chris Morris, who bowl 15% and 12% of their balls as full tosses or yorkers, and those get them 11% and 12% of their wickets.
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But it gets better when you look at the full-toss stats on their own. When Malinga bowls a full toss in the IPL, his bowling average is 18.5, and his economy is 7.18. He is better when bowling full tosses than most bowlers are when hitting the pitch. All the other top yorker bowlers go at over nine an over when bowling full tosses, because they are normal human beings. With the worst delivery in cricket, Malinga is still a gun. That is because even his full tosses and half-volleys are hard to play, because his deliveries do something that very few bowlers have ever managed to make theirs do: they dip.
A normal high-arm action doesn't let the ball dip much and even a roundish-arm action like Mitchell Johnson's or Fidel Edwards' doesn't. Malinga's action is so much lower than that of a normal bowler that he's almost more of a freak than Murali. You can see at times the ball is not rotating end over end, like with an average seamer, but instead hovering like a UFO, and is just as unpredictable. And when he bowls a slower ball, they drop off a cliff. The number of times Malinga gets a wicket from a full toss that the batsman plays over the top of is incredible. So even when you pick the slower ball, and the length, the ball isn't quite where you need it to be.
You can move around the crease to him, but when you do that, he either slides one through that skids low off the surface, making you mis-hit it, or he bowls one of these savage dipping cutters that goes underneath or over your blade. Not to mention that he's still more than quick enough for a shock short ball. Angled-bat shots are more risky with him than with any seamer before him, and all you are left with is straight-bat shots, over his head or over your head.
Why don't more people bowl yorkers like Malinga does? The answer is simple: no one bowls yorkers like Malinga does. Asking another bowler to deliver yorkers like that is like asking another person to bowl at Shoaib Akhtar's pace or with Shane Warne's spin and consistency - it's not going to happen. A tall bowler who bowls at the same pace as Malinga, with a standard action and a decent slower ball, would get murdered if he tried as many yorkers as Malinga.
Forget your romantic image of the yorker of yore, the Malinga golden unicorn of destruction, and making the yorker great again. The yorker of reality is being tried. Sometimes it is bowled well, sometimes it isn't bowled well; sometimes it works, and sometimes it ends up in row 17.
That is the fate of the modern-day yorker.
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber