October 22, 2013

The death of the yorker

Where are the bowlers who consistently land balls in the blockhole at decent pace?

James Faulkner consistently nailed the hitting zone under pressure in Mohali © BCCI

MS Dhoni's lament about the quality of death bowling after Ishant Sharma's latest meltdown highlights a trend in modern cricket that is difficult to comprehend - the complete inability to bowl yorkers under pressure. Perhaps Ishant was given instructions not to bowl yorkers. Whatever the reason, that performance was pathetic, made less so only by similar poor bowling throughout the world in similar circumstances by bowlers from all countries.

Contemporary cricket abounds with bowling coaches and technical analysis by video that is meant to enhance skills. Apart from the spinners' ability to bowl doosras, I fail to see how the standard of bowling has improved that much in the last few decades, despite all the technological and physiological advances.

Even allowing for the scoop (ramp) shot to full-pitched deliveries and heavier bats on smaller grounds, I'm not convinced that the modern international fast bowler holds a candle to the quicks of say 20 or 30 years ago. Perhaps there are just so many of them these days that it is unfair to compare them to the smaller list of elite fast bowlers of yesteryear. It is entirely another story as to why there are so many mediocre quicks playing international cricket but that may in part be due to the injury toll (despite sports science advances) and the plethora of cricket, much of it meaningless, played today and forgotten tomorrow.

To call them "mediocre" is indeed harsh but how else can you describe the rubbish that we've seen recently, not just in this series between Australia and India but regularly over the last few years? Yes, the batting is more innovative and cricket bats are more powerful but a waist-high full toss under pressure is still putrid execution of a basic skill at an elite level. Unless of course that was the plan from the brains trust in the dressing room, in which case, their skill set (and sanity) must surely be reviewed.

Mediocre. Putrid. Rubbish. How else can one describe those length balls from Ishant, ball after ball, each of them disappearing in the same direction? I've only seen James Faulkner bat a few times and I could have told you, without any expert video analysis, that he favours the length ball over midwicket. Or for that matter the full toss. Who wouldn't? Faulkner did similar damage to Ben Cutting last season in a domestic one-day match in Hobart. It's not rocket science to ask Ishant to bowl in a different hitting zone. We don't yet know if he was merely executing a plan (unlikely) or unable to execute a fairly basic skill for someone whose sole occupation is to practise these skills under pressure, 24/7, 365.

Even allowing for the ramp over fine leg, surely yorkers delivered consistently with the appropriate field set are not going to finish up going for multiple sixes. Joel Garner was admittedly the doyen of executing this delivery but even lesser mortals of that broad era were able to consistently land balls in the blockhole at decent pace, with all the disadvantages that accrued to them before the game was truly professional (in a medical, technological, over-coached, over-analysed sense). I recall bowlers like Simon Davis (Australia, circa mid-1980s) and even slower bowlers like Chaminda Vaas being able to land yorkers more consistently without them finishing up waist high and ripe for row 24 in slog corner.

Sometimes sport can become too complicated, even as it becomes more skilful in some respects. Clearly batting skills have risen to new heights, not just in terms of innovation, power and execution but more revealingly, the sheer courage and audacity to contemplate scoring 20-plus runs per over under pressure. Contemplation alone is one thing - actually executing it is another thing altogether.

That is one aspect of the game that has improved dramatically. Mind you, waist-high full tosses and predictable half-volleys don't require that much skill but they still require the batsman to continue to nail his hitting zone, ball after ball. It appears that the modern game has equipped batsmen with the requisite mental skills but the bowlers seem to have regressed to the point where in the future, an asking rate of 15-plus runs per over in the last few overs of an ODI will see the batting side favoured to win.

It used to be the case that when the run rate got past a run a ball, Richie Benaud would solemnly proclaim the death of the chase. Having seen the quality of bowling in the last few games, Richie himself would probably have bowled better, even at the ripe old age of 83. And he wouldn't have needed a bowling coach or video analyst to tell him where not to bowl.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane