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?
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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 have now been closed for this article

  • cric_fanatics on May 2, 2011, 16:49 GMT

    @Aina maria wasim....ZAHEER is ranked 6th in tests..had a wonderful world cup...and i dont remember him being torn apart like over rated umar gul.....As for the batting....lets not humiliate misbah by comparing him sehwag/sachin/yuvraj...etc....

  • Truemans_Ghost on May 2, 2011, 12:35 GMT

    Good grief! How has an article on the history of the yorker turned into a discussion on Tendulkar?

  • dummy4fb on May 2, 2011, 8:47 GMT

    The tendulkar argument is pointless. He is a great batsman, and thats all. His innings in the semifinal, with all due respect to Indian fans, was hardly the mark of a legend, but no one is perfect. Even Don Bradman wasn't. I like lara better, but thats just my opinion. These are ALL opinions. The only FACT is that tendulkar is only human, as is Lara and as was Bradman. Don't insult these greats by petty arguments.

  • dummy4fb on May 2, 2011, 8:40 GMT

    @Yorker_ToeCrusher: Think of it from our point of view. Batsmen like misbah and umar akmal are our mainstay, but Indians would naturally say they are "average". By pakistani standards, Zaheer WOULD be an average bowler. Think about it. @Hooves: Thanks for the tribute. Only Pakistan was capable of making a mess of it after restricting the world's greatest lineup to 260. @bismoy: We don't mind having a 5-match test series, no matter who wins. Im sick of how my country keeps getting 2-test series. As for the result, no use predicting it when the series can't happen. @cric_fanatics: Tendulkar is overrated because Shoaib got him on a duck in the Asian Test Championship. Wait!!! SHOAIB is overrated because Tendulkar hit him all over the park in the 2003 cup. This is the danger of stupid arguments. It's best to appreciate the bowler-batsman tussle for what it is; one of the most entertaining sights cricket has to offer.

  • cric_fanatics on May 1, 2011, 16:54 GMT

    waqar was simply over rated..he was taken to cleaners by jadeja..waqar never fully recovered after that assault....

  • cric_fanatics on May 1, 2011, 16:51 GMT

    too much talk about waqar and gul..to be fair umar gul is a very ordinary bowler..waqar was over rated...the guy refused to play against india in test matches..wasim even says he refused to bowl to tendulkar in a world cup match...

  • cric_fanatics on May 1, 2011, 16:45 GMT

    it all depends on the day and the batsman...Umar gul got the beating of his life by sehwag..what happened to his yorker then..?..as for wahab riaz..this guy went for 90 in 9 overs on his debut against guess who...SEHWAG?..

  • nlambda on May 1, 2011, 16:14 GMT

    @Kiwirocker: Waqar Younis 40 runs in 2 overs in 1996 WC. Waqar Younis 71 runs in 8.4 overs in 2003 WC. You know against which opponent! :-)

  • dummy4fb on May 1, 2011, 11:36 GMT

    @KiwiRocker...that was is first match mate! Even Lara got out to him numerous times. Sachin has played greats like Murali, Warne, McGrath, Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop, Saqlain Mushtaq and also contemporary wonders like Steyn, Lee and Malinga... and played them pretty darn well. In fact i have seen Lara 'suffer' in bouncy Australian pitches with McGrath and Lee bowling in tandem. He has only faced 3 balls from Shoaib Akhtar, and got injured on the third one. While Sachin has been smacking him all his life. Dude, Sachin's test average of 56 is way higher than Lara's 52 and 46 in odi's is also greater than 40 of Lara. Sachin's got 150 odd wickets too. And you say Lara is greater, while i've not even mentioned the number of Sachin's centuries?? Come on.

  • Follow_thru on May 1, 2011, 10:18 GMT

    @Kiwirocker, some of the best fast bowlers during the late 80s and early 90s were West Indian - Ambrose, Walsh & Bishop (the fastest of that era) - all of whom Tendulkar played and Lara didn't have to. Lara also didn't fare very well against McGrath. I can't recall Lara playing a substantial innings on a pace & swing friendly pitch like Tendulkar did in Perth, or Headingly or recently in S. Afica. On balance I'd rate Tendulkar a better player of pace than Lara and Lara slightly ahead on playing spin.

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