April 30, 2011

Searching for the yorker

Did the term for cricket's most exciting delivery originate from that of the county with the similar name? Or was it derived from slang?

Sporting Old Parson, "I didn't ask you what a 'yorker' was - (with dignity) - I know that as well as you do. But why is it called a 'yorker'?"
Professional Player, "Well, I can't say, sir. I don't know what else you could call it."
Punch magazine, September 23, 1882

What's the most exciting delivery in cricket? A glorious googly? A brutal bouncer? A deadly doosra?

All these will have their proponents, I'm sure, but all would be wrong. When it comes to a heart-stopping instant of sheer, visceral pleasure, there is only one winner. Nothing beats the yorker. From Lasith Malinga skittling Kenya with a burst of unplayable missiles, to Waqar Younis blasting Brian Lara off his feet, it is the quintessential death ball, and the most devastating weapon in a fast bowler's armoury.

But why is a yorker a yorker, and where does it come from? I play my cricket in York, where the natives are known, at least in some quarters, as Yorkers. Does this mean that this is the home of the delivery, then, and are the locals experts in bowling the ball? I donned my academic research hat, one that looks suspiciously similar to my regular cricket hat, and set off to find out.

Even from a cursory online search, it is clear that plenty of theories abound. For proper etymological work, however, the only sensible place to start is the Oxford English Dictionary. There, three forms of yorker are listed - the bowling variety, the demonym, and the cryptically intriguing "something that is used to tie a trouser leg beneath the knee".

The cricketing yorker is first documented from August 1861, when Bell's Life in London & Sporting Chronicle reported that "Buchanan stopped some time, and bothered the bowlers much, as he would not hit even a 'Yorker'." Ignoring the fact that not hitting a yorker would surely end a batsman's innings, rather than prolong it, it is clear that the writer assumed his readers knew what a Yorker was. Less than a decade on, and the inverted commas had gone, as well as any ambiguity, as the Sporting Magazine (1870) noted that, "A fast Yorker is as disagreeable a first ball as an incoming batsman could receive."

When it comes to why it is so-called, the OED plumps for a geographical explanation, suggesting that it probably was from York, as a ball introduced by Yorkshire players.

Michael Rundell, however, finds this "really quite unconvincing". In his Wisden Dictionary of Cricket (3rd ed., 2006), Rundell argues that the true story is one of deception; that the yorker is from Yorkshire, but only because "york" is a slang word for cheating.

Rundell refers to the English Dialect Dictionary, compiled by linguist Joseph Wright at the turn of the 20th century. Wright found that, in various parts of the British Isles, "york" meant being shrewd or sharp, or simply "to cheat". He cites an example from Warwickshire, where a disgruntled plaintiff complains of an unknown person: "He has yorked me".

Indeed, though this isn't going to win me many friends in my new home, there is a substantial body of work relating to Yorkers being people whose personal dealings involve various unsavoury attributes. To outsiders at least, Yorkshire folk were always on the look-out for a new way to fleece someone.

One of the first cricketing dictionaries to define the yorker (Steel & Lyttelton, 1888) states that it was "called in days gone by a 'tice', an abbreviation of 'entice'". It seems a simple leap of logic, therefore, to make the crafty-cricket connection, and many have made it.

In its version of the yorker story, Wikipedia says "to pull Yorkshire" on someone was to deceive them, but as usual it is slightly wrong. The correct phrase is "to come [or put] Yorkshire" on someone, meaning to cheat or dupe them, as gleefully pointed out by the Lancashire CCC website.

To be "yerked" or "yarked" is to be struck, smacked or hit; to have something thrown at you suddenly; or to have your shoes tied together. It's entirely correct to mutter, after being yorked, that you've also been yarked

I asked David Hall, director of the Yorkshire CCC museum whether he could shed any light on the matter. He told me that they have gone back through the records to the start of the county club in 1833, but don't have an answer. When pushed, the museum refers (or defers) to the Cricket Lexicon of Leigh & Woodhouse (2006). They therefore prefer the idea "that the ball was invented in Yorkshire, [to] the fact that york was slang for 'deceive'".

The third option put forward by Leigh and Woodhouse is that yorkers were originally bowled with a jerky action. Even though it is a dialect variation of "jerker", I can find no evidence that the ball was ever called a "yerker", so this is perhaps a leap too far.

There does seem to some mileage in the many meanings of the verb, though. To be "yerked" or "yarked" is to be struck, smacked or hit; to have something thrown at you suddenly; or to have your shoes tied together. Many a batsman has suffered all these indignities as a yorker knocks them over, so I like the idea of the "yarker", even if I can't prove it is the true forefather. Either way, it's entirely correct to mutter, after being yorked, that you've also been yarked.

So what are we left with? Hypotheses still, but we can at least do a bit of clarifying. One website claims with certainty that the yorker gets its name from the device for tying your trouser legs below the knee. This doesn't take into account that the cricketing term appears in the 19th century, whereas the trousering one is not recorded until the 20th. Given that it is quite difficult for an older word to derive from a newer one, barring some kind of quantum delivery, I think we can rule that theory out.

We can also rule out 19th century Yorkshire and England star Tom Emmett as the original Yorker. Emmett was certainly a very influential and successful left-arm quick bowler, and, according to Anthony Woodhouse, "perhaps cricket's greatest character". Emmett didn't make his Yorkshire debut till 1866, though, some five years after the yorker was first recorded, so there's no way he was responsible for inventing the delivery. He did invent his own slower ball, though, one that pitched on a right-hander's leg stump and then cut away towards off. Emmett called it the "sosteneuter", and it is surely due for a comeback. Perhaps Zaheer Khan might like to add it to his repertoire?

It's interesting that none of the quoted examples are from Yorkshire, indicating that yorker was a term applied by outsiders, not locals. The early yorkers are also capitalised, suggesting a geographical noun. And as hinted at by the original 1861 quote, temptation and bamboozlement are what the yorker is all about. The deceitful Yorker with his deceptive yorker might just be the true story.

Whatever its origins, it's reassuring to those of us still trying and failing to master it, that Lasith Malinga "didn't have any idea of how to bowl a yorker" when he was called up to the Sri Lankan national team. He's certainly nailed it now, and Waqar Younis says his performance against Kenya in the 2011 World Cup "reminded me of myself in the good old days".

And, having apparently honed his skills by bowling at a pair of shoes in the nets, I can't help but wonder if Malinga is inadvertently giving us a glimpse back into history, and returning the yarker to its boots.

Liam Herringshaw is a medium-paced palaeontologist who moved to Newfoundland from the UK to improve his chances of opening the bowling

Comments