October 29, 2013

A yorker state of mind

Your early cricketing experience hugely influences your ability to consistently pitch it in the blockhole as an adult

Among the most crucial aspects of bowling a yorker is the balance in your final stride © Getty Images

I'm tempted to say the ability to bowl a yorker is something you are born with. But that would be stretching things a bit. There was a point when, like everyone else I knew, I used to tear my hair out in frustration at the lack of yorkers from Indian bowlers. In the post-Kapil era, there was the odd Zaheer yorker, and that Irfan yorker to Gilchrist, but from a consistency point of view, things looked bleak on the Indian yorker scene.

After some thought I concluded that it perhaps had a lot to do with how they bowled when they were young and how they were coached. The ease with which you bowl a yorker is, I think, rooted largely in your early cricketing experience. You can polish your skills and become better with practice, but I believe there is a fundamental element that is difficult to master if you haven't bowled enough yorkers in your early cricketing years. Unless, that is, you are a bowling freak like Lasith Malinga, who says he didn't know how to bowl a yorker until he met Champaka Ramanayake and Rumesh Ratnayake, after he got into the Sri Lankan team.

Confidence plays a huge role. And this confidence stems from having successfully bowled yorkers at an early age. Many, if not most, of today's bowlers find it difficult to bowl yorkers consistently. Some of it is down to bats becoming better and stronger, and because of the bowlers' general fear of being flogged, as they are in T20s and the slog overs in one-dayers. But a lot of it is due to a kind of regimented early cricket, and bowling in the infernal "right areas". Nothing like tennis-ball cricket, then, to help you learn the art of bowling yorkers.

Swing can be taught unless your natural action precludes it. But I think the yorker is a lot more intuitive and therefore difficult to teach. You are more on your own. It's a bit like the natural lengths of bowlers. The natural length is a result of body and wrist action and is linked to the way a bowler's basic athleticism causes him to move. This gets set at a very young age and is very difficult to unlearn, and shouldn't perhaps be attempted.

From all accounts, Imran Khan, undoubtedly the best fast-bowling mentor of his time, didn't mess about with basic actions and passed on advice at the right times and, equally importantly, about the right things

It would seem, at least from the outside, that some bowling coaches tend to fiddle around too much with actions, and bowlers end up being confused. I can't but contrast this with the approaches of batting coaches, especially in the last couple of decades, in India. No one ever tried fiddling with the basic technique of Sehwag, Dhoni or Laxman. Or even the unconventional low grip of Tendulkar. We need to be eternally grateful to batting coaches around the country, for this surely is among the prime reasons for the incredible variety that makes Indian batting such a visual treat. From all accounts, Imran Khan, undoubtedly the best fast-bowling mentor of his time, didn't mess about with basic actions and passed on advice at the right times and, equally importantly, about the right things.

But back to yorkers. Bowling a new-ball yorker is harder because new-ball swing is generally more difficult to control at very full lengths. Old-ball yorkers, though, with or without reverse swing, are a lot more about basic balance in your action, the confidence to be able to reproduce the delivery almost at will, and keeping things simple. This balance tends to go askew if you start practising a multitude of slower balls.

A yorker is something you pick up at an age when your only thought is to bowl as full and fast as you possibly can. You lose it if you try too many things. And from time to time, you won't pitch it right if your fingers and wrist become a bit stiff under pressure. But if you can't bowl it consistently, it's either because you aren't a natural yorker bowler, or you have been trying to be good at too many things in too short a time. Once you have picked up the basics of the yorker early, perfecting it is a single-minded pursuit. The slower bouncer, or the endless variety of slower balls, takes away the focus from bowling the yorker.

The most crucial thing in bowling a yorker is the balance in your final stride that gives you a firm reference point and keeps your length where you want it; balance in your run-up and especially in your leap and final stride. I've often wondered why bowlers who can bowl yorkers don't shorten their run-ups in the slog overs to reduce the chances of being off balance and concentrate on strength-of-the-shoulder yorkers.

Look at Mohammed Shami. He's nice and balanced in his run-up. He will have his bad days, but you can tell there is a natural confidence when he bowls yorkers. There was a close-up of Dhoni's face after a yorker in Shami's final over in Ranchi. Perhaps it was my imagination, but it seemed remarkably like Dhoni had caught up with a long-lost friend after a tiring search.

I realise all this is theory and based on club cricket experience. So I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a confirmation of my thoughts from the master himself, Waqar Younis. Deep in an excellent interview with Nagraj Gollapudi, I found this wonderful nugget:

Mike Selvey, the former England fast bowler, wrote that you don't bowl or aim a yorker, you feel it instead.
"That is a very good comment. It is not like you are aiming at a certain place. You feel it and you tell yourself you are going to do it and it is going to be there. You can ask Malinga and even he will tell you that he never aims the yorker at a particular spot. It is another thing that he bowls too many yorkers for my liking. He can be a lot more effective if he bowls the length ball more. But a yorker is a delivery that one needs to feel - you feel the energy is going to shift, the momentum is going to shift."

The yorker, an intuitive delivery if ever there was one.

Krishna Kumar is an operating systems architect taking a teaching break in his hometown, Calicut in Kerala