Whether it was Frank Tyson or Wes Hall in a bygone era or Shoaib Akhtar or Brett Lee in modern times, the men capable of generating extreme pace have been the cynosure of the cricketing world. They stand out like Ferraris in the fast lane.
Qualitative fast bowlers have two deadly arsenals in their armoury; one targets the head, the other aims for the feet. The bouncer is a weapon of mass destruction, so to say, as it’s the most liberally used firepower. The target is the batsman’s skull than the wicket. It has been generously employed by fast bowlers since time immemorial to put the scare of God – even among atheists in batting pads! It’s a weapon of terror; one that can maim the batsman and/or destroy his confidence.
No batsman has ever died on an international cricket field by a blow from a cricket ball to the head, though one Indian batsman – Nari Contractor – came perilously close.
The second arsenal in the fast bowlers’ armoury is the Yorker. Though it may not seem as threatening as the bouncer, when directed with precision, it gives minimalistic escape chance in comparison to a bouncer. The bouncer is relatively easier to bowl, though a crafty fast bowler like Andy Roberts had different shades of the perfume ball – as the West Indians called it because batsmen smelt the leather as the ball whizzed past their nose! A yorker, on the other hand, comes like a guided missile, threatening to take the feet of the batsman in its pacy path.
The yorker is productive weapon to unleash, but it requires tremendous control and one of the most difficult craft to master – something that the finest and most productive of bowlers in cricket history were unable to. When directed with control and precision, it’s a dramatic wicket-taking ball. If the two elements are missing, then it’s like hitting the self-destruct button. The yorker is the weapon bowlers like to bowl at the death in the abridged version of the game. It has the capability to stop the batsmen from throwing their bats around.
It’s also a fantastic weapon to bowl to a new batsman. Remember the Yorker Irfan Pathan bowled to comprehensively bowl Adam Gilchrist in the 2004 Sydney Test? Or, more recently, the World Cup semi-finals at Mohali when Wahab Riaz bowled Yuvraj Singh with a beast of a first ball? They look spectacular and remains embedded in memory.
While there are multiple scoring options when dealing even with a good length ball, all that a batsman could do combating a yorker is to dig it out. It’s an ultra-defensive response, calculated towards self preservation – of limb and wicket!
The history of the game has seen some exponents of the craft in the last four decades. At the peak of his prowess in the ’70s, Jeff Thomson came up with the term “sandshoe crusher” – another term for yorker. Nobody felt the pain of these great balls of fire more than Mike Denness’ Englishmen in the 1974-75 Ashes series. Built like a Spanish bull, the strong, six feet plus Queenslander fired the ball with a sling-shot action at the feet of the batsmen. It meant, batsmen saw the release of the ball at the very last second. Thommo was fast and furious, touching close to 100 mph. To simplify things: at that pace, a batsman had about 1/4th of a second to spot the ball, factor the movement in the air, off the wicket, judge the bounce and decide on the stroke! Yes, 1/4th of a second is all that he got for the computer inside his cranium to make a decision. That will help you appreciate the degree of difficulty he subjected the batsmen to.
David Lloyd, who played in that 1974-75 Ashes series had once recalled the agony: “When I batted at Perth I didn’t even wear a cap. All I had was an apology for a thigh pad. You didn’t feel fear, but you did feel hopelessness at times, a feeling that you couldn’t cope.”
It was in this Test that Thomson struck Lloyd so hard in the groin that his protective box was turned inside out!
Mike Denness, the English captain, remembers Lloyd’s reaction when he returned to the dressing room after one innings. “Within seconds, his body was quivering. His neck and the top half of his body in particular were shaking. He was shell-shocked.”
Keith Miller, himself a very distinguished fast bowler of his times, put things in perspective: “He (Thomson) frightened me, and I was sitting 200 yards away.”
The fact that Thomson opened the bowling with the great Dennis Lillee meant that all escape routes were sealed for the batsmen. Little wonder Thomson and Lillee took 58 wickets between them in that series and went on to become of the great fast bowling combines in cricketing history.
Next in the line of dreaded fast bowlers with yorker as their wicket-taking nuclear weapon was The “Big Bird” of prey from Barbados – Joel Garner. The start of his loping run-up did not give any indication of what was in store; it was the opposite of a fast bowler like Malcolm Marshall, who injected fear in the batsmen from the very start of his explosive run-up. But when the six feet, seven-inch Garner’s hands went up for the final flourish, the ball was so high that it may well have brought down the clouds as it came down its final moment of destructive engineering. From over10 feet, the ball made a steep flight down while careening at the batsman’s feet or spit like a venomous cobra from the good length. If it was the deadly yorker, batsmen had two options – dig the ball out or dig their graves! But it’s easier said than done. Garner bowled yorkers like Bapu Nadkarni bowled his left-arm spin – with robotic precision. When teams dared to take liberties, it was mass suicide – as England did in 1979 World Cup final when Garner took five wickets in 11 balls while conceding just four runs!
Cricket’s rich history will give copious evidence to the fact that fast bowlers hunt in pairs: Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, Fred Trueman and Brian Statham, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock… The exception to this great list was the West Indies pace battery which unleashed a four-pronged terror in the form of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft… and later Malcolm Marshall. Yet, arguably, no fast bowling pair bowled the yorker with such deadly effectiveness as Waqar Younis and his accomplice-in-destruction, Wasim Akram.
Waqar was in a class of his own. He was the master and the ball was his slave that obeyed every command of his. If you were not at the receiving end or of the same nationality as the batsman, Waqar was pure joy. For a long time, there was this belief that if a ball exceeded certain pace, the ball would not swing. Waqar smashed the belief of those people who believed in such aerodynamic myth. He was the fastest bowler at one point of time in his career, who made the ball curl in a long, long way in the air at speeds exceeding 95mph.
Waqar had an athletic, rhythmic run-up that ended in a smooth round-arm action. It can be said without much murmurs of disagreement that he elevated science and art of fast bowling to a new level. The world had not seen anything like what he did and the English media pilloried him and the Pakistanis. What they could not explain then is today called the reverse swing! And Waqar was a genius in producing the ball at will to make hunt and hound the batsmen. His 22 five-wicket hauls is testimony to the havoc he played. Of the 372 wickets he took in Tests, 110 were lbw and 102 bowled – the high percentage of bowled and lbw a good indication of his unplayable yorkers.
Waqar once not only bowled the great Brian Lara with a yorker but embarrassed him, as he had done many others, by making him go on all fours in trying to avoid the guided missile! Lesser mortals could only take solace from the plight of the West Indian batting genius.
The latest entry into the rare club of dreaded exponents of the yorker is Lasith “Slinga” Malinga. It’s a sight to watch batsmen reacting as if a grenade was going to exploding at their feet! The thought uppermost in the batsmen’s minds is survival than scoring. At five feet, seven inches, Malinga is a short man compared to Thomson, Garner and Waqar. But Malinga is mighty destructive. What compounds the problems for the batsmen is the fact he not only has a slingshot action, but that slingshot itself in unconventional! If Thomson had shades of a javelin thrower (and by that I don’t me it was an illegal action!), then Malinga’s bowling arm comes sideways rather than high-arm. It disconcerts the batsman, who is unable to pick up the ball in time. No wonder, like Waqar, Malinga has got a bulk of his wicket lbw or bowled.
Thommo, Garner, Waqar and Malinga – four men who tested the strength of the timber and toes like few bowlers have in cricketing history.
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