Death bowling is a fine art, but as batsmen are increasingly stamping their authority on the final overs of a match, is the yorker becoming extinct? ANT SIMS chats to former Proteas bowling coach Vincent Barnes.
Sixteen runs are all that stand between a team and a victory. It’s a good wicket and there’s a big hitter at the crease. At the start of the bowler’s run-up stands the man who has been entrusted to defend the runs and you can almost see his heart beating in his throat. The home-team’s crowd is buzzing like a swarm of wasps. It’s almost as if he can hear their every word. He knows what he has to do. Bowl a yorker, simple. The bowler starts off with a full toss which goes sailing over the ropes for six. Ten runs now. Ten runs and five balls. He trudges back to his marker, thinking, visualising and completing the next delivery in his head. This time it’s a yorker. No run. The game of cat-and-mouse between the two continues and, in the end, it’s the bowler who emerges victorious. He’s swallowed by his teammates’ euphoria and back-slapping as he plucks a stump out of the ground to remember the match. It’s been a good day.
The rhythmic ritual of getting it right at the death is something to behold. When a bowler is in full stride, watching him run in is mesmerising, magical, memorable.
Death bowling is a bespoke art, mastered by only a few and, while the yorker has been the traditional go-to ball in any bowlers’ arsenal, these deliveries are becoming increasingly rare. The game has evolved and batsmen are becoming more skilled, especially in the shortest format of the game.
Those who wield the willow are continuously inventing new shots. Shots that would have most MCC members choke on their tea and biscuits. Batsmen are becoming smarter and where a towering paceman would once have a diminutive batsman shaking in his spikes, they’re now simply scooping their balls over the keeper and flashing a cheeky smile.
In this year’s IPL, on average about 40 runs were scored at the death in the first innings for the first 35 matches. It seems a lot considering how often lower-order batsmen found themselves at the crease. Some games saw as many as 60 runs taken from the overs at the death. Equally disturbing was the fourth ODI between West Indies and Australia in March which saw the Windies take 93 runs between overs 45 and 50.
A toe-smashing yorker was the stock delivery of many bowlers for years, but does the distinct lack of these deliveries mean it’s a dying art?
“I do believe that the yorker should be your go-to ball at the death, but I think because most captains these days are batsmen, they think too much like the batsman at the crease and they try too much to block off one part of the field completely,” says Vincent Barnes, current high performance coach and the Proteas’ former bowling coach of eight years.
“Captains try to make it impossible to score behind the wicket and encourage bowlers to bowl slower balls. They want bowlers to bowl balls which they think might be more difficult to face and they want players to score in front of the wicket and set fields accordingly which makes it really hard for bowlers to take the risk of bowling yorkers. Not all captains are employing this tactic, but a lot of them are and I think that’s contributing to the lack of yorkers.”
Death bowling is not a task anybody wants to take up, though, it’s often thankless and ruthless, with batsmen on the prowl to help their side post a good total or chase down a target. While need for speed is often touted as a solid strength, a yorker can be executed perfectly even when bowlers drop their pace by 20km/h to 30km/h, but you have to be in the right head space.
“Another important thing is attitude, if you don’t want to do it, then don’t do it. You have to be in the right frame of mind because it’s six balls of which every one will be targeted. You also have to give yourself time to bowl and this can only be done through practice. Bowlers should spend time at practice teaching themselves to run in slower and even bowl slower,” Barnes adds.
There are players who do this with seamless ease. Umar Gul has an average of only nine with a strike rate of 7.93 at the death. He's taken 30 of his 53 at the death in T20 internationals, while a curly-haired Sri Lankan with bad highlights, affectionately known as Slinger Malinga has been tormenting batsmen for years. Malinga has taken 12 of his 15 wickets in the 2012 IPL at the death.
“The two best death bowlers in the world are probably Malinga and Gul and I know these guys practice religiously, but I know it’s not a nice thing to practice. You can set up cones and use them as targets, but it’s definitely not something which is enjoyable if you are practicing with somebody constantly hitting the ball back at you.
“Even Charl Langeveldt used to practice yorkers constantly. He used to ask for more time in the middle to practice them and once the yorkers were out of the way he’d work on his slower balls and his slow bouncers,” Barnes recalls.
Players like Malinga might not be the most aesthetically pleasing, but his death bowling ritual is performed with such systematic precision he’s perfected the craft. Out of his three stock deliveries, one of them is guaranteed to outfox the batsman.
“It’s worrying to see bowlers trying all these fancy balls, deliveries which are quite difficult to bowl. And while it’s good to see bowlers adapting to the way the game is changing, they must keep in mind that they have to construct an over under the conditions. They have to ask themselves, who am I bowling to, what are the conditions and what is the best way to construct these six balls to limit the number of runs taken from the over,” Barnes adds.
“Bowlers have to realise the game is filled with wicket-taking opportunities, at the death, in Powerplays. Bowlers shouldn’t look at it as another five-over run-scoring open faucet. The way the game is changing, batsmen are actually starting to fear the Powerplay because it puts them under pressure. When batsmen are settled at the crease and all of a sudden six fielders are up in the ring and they’re forced to hit the ball instead of just pushing it around for singles, the pressure does get to them. Bowlers should see this as something which can be used to their advantage.”
There’s no doubt cricket is changing and evolving and, while it’s by no means easy to execute a yorker to perfection, it’s a delivery which will continue to bamboozle batsmen for years to come. It’s a delivery that should be at the core of every bowler’s attack. While it might not go extinct, the yorker – if not preserved – might become endangered, a sweet delicacy which bowling enthusiasts will get to savour on rare occasions. DM
Photo: Australia's David Warner slips blocking a yorker from Sri Lanka's Lasith Malinga during their one-day cricket match in Perth February 10, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer