Don’t blame Lahiru Kumara. Blame yorkers.

Lahiru Kumara
Lahiru Kumara has copped a lot of criticism for his failure at the death. Courtesy: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Of late, Lahiru Kumara has become a caricature in the consciousness of the Sri Lankan fandom, having failed to defend 15 and 16 runs off final overs in the T20 World Cup and the LPL respectively. His successive failures have made him just the perfect fit for the age-old stereotype of a brute fast bowler who lacks wits. In fact, a sports editor even went so far as to call him “all brawn and no brain”. The criticisms evoke memories of Dilhara Fernando, another much-maligned bowler, unfairly, of course. But does Lahiru Kumara deserve all the brickbats that are being thrown at him?

First, let’s see if we should be singling him out in the first place. If you compare Lahiru Kumara’s performance in the T20 World Cup to that of Dushmantha Chameera, Sri Lanka’s premier white-ball fast bowler, despite flunking at the death against South Africa, Kumara had better numbers than Chameera.  Kumara picked up 8 wickets at an economy rate of 7.65 whereas Chameera managed only 7 at 8.32. This was despite Kumara playing one game less than Chameera.

Of course, Chameera is a lot more experienced, has better skills, and is more accurate with his lines and lengths. I am not trying to vindicate Kumara at the expense of Chameera. My point is that it is not fair to single out Kumara for his World Cup performance. Don’t forget that Chameera, of all bowlers, gave away a six against Kagiso Rabada in the penultimate over of the match against South Africa, which was no less a crime than being pummeled by David Miller, of all batsmen, for two sixes in a row in the last over. Consequently, there is good reason to believe that even Chameera bowling the last over would have made little difference.

Kumara is only 24 and has only played all of 30 T20s so far and I don’t think it is right to criticize him for failing where you wouldn’t even expect your lead bowler to succeed. That being said, failing to halt a deluge of sixes at the death is a big enough issue that is worthy of serious deliberation. But is it Kumara’s fault alone?

To try to find an answer to this question, let me take you to the fabled final over of the 2016 WT20. Only four balls were bowled by Ben Stokes in that over and all four of them disappeared over the boundary rope. There was one thing that was consistent across all those balls—they were all fuller-length deliveries or as they are called today, slot balls.

Now, it is common wisdom that you shouldn’t be pitching the ball in the slot. So, why would Stokes, or anyone for that matter, bowl four in the slot in a row? That was because Stokes was actually trying to york the batsman but erred on the shorter side. A slot ball is nothing but an attempted yorker.

Quite predictably, the stock response would be that you should practice the yorkers more. But the highest success rate of 49.2% by Praveen Kumar in bowling yorkers in T20s should tell you that it is easier said than done. When you get the yorker right, you travel at somewhere between 6 to 6.5 runs per over. But when you don’t, that is when you bowl a full toss or bowl it in the slot, you travel around 10 runs an over. The difficulty of getting the yorker right means that you are more likely to go at 10 runs an over than at 6.5 when attempting a yorker.

An excellent microcosm of this yorker phenomenon is the over by Karim Janat to Asif Ali in the 2021 T20 World Cup as noted by Freddie Wilde. Janat attempted five yorkers and got only two right. This gave him a success rate of 40% which is easily among the highest. The two successful yorkers were dot balls whereas the three failed yorkers were all hit for a six each. Janat performed above par but still ended up giving away 18 runs. Bowling yorkers at the death is both cliched and overrated.

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Four attempted yorkers. Four sixes. Courtesy: Getty Images

There are several reasons why yorkers have become futile at the death. To begin with, lower-order power hitters have become adept at slogging fuller-length balls. They now sit deep inside the crease and have taught themselves to use their bottom hand better to generate enough power and leverage. And then there are batsmen who move around their crease which allows them to convert even a pinpoint yorker into a full toss or a half volley.

Then, how did Malinga succeed at the death bowling yorkers, you may ask. Since 2012, 41.8% of all balls Malinga bowled in T20s were attempted yorkers. Only Thangarasu Natarajan has attempted more yorkers than Malinga since 2012. Yet, Malinga managed to land his Yorkers correctly only 39% of the time. Despite this, his economy rate between the 16th and 20th overs was only 8.06. His full tosses in the IPL until 2016 had earned him 17 wickets and had gone away for only 7.18 runs per over. In comparison, Jasprit Bumrah had given away 11.78 runs per over with his full tosses and managed to pick up just two wickets.

On this account, Malinga had done well even when he failed to land his yorkers correctly—a freak feat by a freak bowler. No wonder it was his freakishness that made his yorkers so effective. His slingy action clubbed with his express pace and shorter height ensured that even when he erred on the shorter side of a yorker, the ball still skidded along the pitch making it tougher for batsmen to get underneath the ball. His full tosses, on the other hand, dipped sharply beating batsmen in the flight. Malinga and only Malinga could have done what he did with his yorkers. No other bowler can emulate it.

So, if not for yorkers what do you bowl at the death? Take Bumrah for example. He attempts a yorker only 25.2% of the time and succeeds only 32% of the time. Even Ashok Dinda attempted yorkers more and succeeded more than Bumrah. But still, Bumrah gives away only 8.21 runs per over at the death. So, certainly, there are better ways to be effective at the death.

To know the right length to bowl at the death, let’s look at Tymal Mills who has the best economy rate at the death of 7.47. He attempts a yorker only 14% of the time and bowls shorter around 60% of the time. Balls bowled in the good or hard length areas have gone at around 8.6 runs per over at the death since the 2016 T20 World Cup while attempted yorkers have traveled at 9.38 runs per over. This is not surprising since lower-order power hitters hate it when the ball is bowled into the pitch at express pace. Chamika Karunaratne’s short ball to Andre Russell that dismissed him in the T20 World Cup is a case in point.

This should give you a fair idea about why Kumara has struggled at the death. Against David Miller, he attempted a yorker twice in succession and was hit over midwicket for sixes. When he shortened the length the very next ball, Miller was rushed for pace and managed to pinch only a single. It is pertinent to note here that Rabada also hit Chameera for a six in the previous over when Chameera’s attempted yorker fell in the slot.

Against Colombo in the LPL, however, Kumara started with the right length. His first ball to Sherfane Rutherford was bowled into the pitch and, predictably, the batsman struggled to hit it. He followed that up with a bouncer, a length that is too short but more effective than an attempted yorker, to Seekkuge Prasanna and it was top-edged for a six. One can fault the length here for the fine leg was up in the ring. But Kumara bowled the right length to the wrong field. It is the captain who should be blamed for setting the wrong field.

Nonetheless, Kumara reacted to the unfortunate outcome by going around the wicket and trying to bowl yorkers. The end result was two more sixes to seal the game in Colombo’s favor.

Kumara was criticized for bowling it in the slot but that is what you get when you try to bowl yorkers. Bowling yorkers doesn’t even seem to be his idea. Against South Africa, both Dasun Shanaka and Bhanuka Rajapaksa implied that it was a team decision to bowl yorkers at David Miller. Against Colombo, it is less likely Kumara would have even tried to change his line of attack without the captain’s input. 

It is not just Kumara who has failed attempting yorkers. Dushmantha Chameera gave away 43 runs at the death against Jaffna in the LPL trying to bowl yorkers. And this is not even a mistake that is exclusive to Sri Lankans. Chris Jordan traveled the distance against Jimmy Neesham in the semi-final of the T20 World Cup trying to hit the blockhole. Mitchell Starc broke away from his right-thinking troop by attempting yorkers in both the semi-final and the final and ended up hemorrhaging runs. 

Accordingly, it is not Lahiru Kumara so much as the strategy of bowling yorkers at the death that should be blamed for the debacle in the T20 World Cup and the LPL. And a different bowler in Kumara’s place would have made little difference if the strategy had remained the same.

Kumara has what most bowlers in Sri Lanka don’t have—express pace—and that is a non-negotiable skill in limited-overs cricket right now. Instead of slandering and sidelining Kumara for his failures, he should be provided with good mentorship and proper guidance to help him succeed in the shorter formats. After all, the fault does not lie with him as much as it does with the Sri Lankan think tank.