What is Yips in cricket?

The business of bowling a cricket ball is not a natural movement. The best bowlers make it look as if it is, but it is not.

Just consider a process that involves running to a fixed point, jumping in the air and turning the body through 90 degrees, landing on one foot, transferring the weight to the other while lifting the arms above head-height, changing from having one shoulder pointing towards the target to having the other one pointing the same way and doing all this while rotating the arms and letting go the ball at precisely the right moment. It requires a certain measure of coordination.

Most of the time, it is achieved without a second thought. If, however, you ask a bowler to analyse his movements and think about what he is doing in the terms outlined above, the possibilities for the coordination to go awry become alarmingly real. It is like asking someone to analyse how they breathe. While working out exactly how they manage it, the chances are that they will asphyxiate.

Cricket is a cerebral game. There are several players who have been within six inches of being great cricketers. Unfortunately for them, the six inches in question can be measured from one ear to the other. They have the ability but not the application, especially when the time comes that the voice of doubt becomes louder than the sound of confidence coming from the depths of the mind. That is when problems occur.

It happens to the golfer with disconcerting frequency, usually on the green when he is faced with a putt of sometimes no more than a couple of feet. The golf er can sink that putt 999 times in 1000 attempts in normal circumstances. Left-handed; righthanded; one-handed; eyes open; even with eyes closed. He could sink the putt with a stick of rhubarb.

Then, on the one thousandth occasion, from somewhere within the inner recesses of the brain comes a little whisper from Thomas – of the doubting variety. As the grains of confidence run through his fingers, the golfer starts to consider the possibility of missing, then the unlikelihood of holing, before the certainty that there is no chance of what now appears a huge ball being propelled into that tiny hole using the live eel that the putter has suddenly become. That golfer has the dreaded yips which, unfortunately, can affect bowlers as well.

This loathsome affliction need not necessarily be terminal. On the 1984/85 tour of India and Sri Lanka, England’s left-arm spinner Phil Edmonds found he had trouble not with the whole process of bowling, but simply with his run-up. Despite the fact that he was not running in quickly, Edmonds found insurmountable problems in landing his front foot in the right place in the bowling stride.

His solution was to cut his run so that instead of a stately approach to the wicket by the tall bowler, he shuffled in over no more than two paces and from an almost standing position delivered the ball with such effect that he was a key member of England’s attack on that tour, taking 14 Test wickets.

It was not such a happy story for another member of the left-arm spinning fraternity. Keith Medlycott was a consistent performer for Surrey between 1984 and 1991. A useful lower middle order batsman, he was a spinner of such ability that he was selected to go on England’s tour to the Caribbean in 1990/91. He did not get a Test, but neither did Eddie Hemmings as the number one spinner on that tour. Nevertheless, Medlycott performed well in the first-class matches when he had the chance, including taking six wickets in the game against Barbados.

Medlycott came home to have a good season in 1991 with 49 wickets, but that was it. He did not bowl another ball for Surrey in first-class cricket as the yips took hold. At the end of 1992 he was released and, although he came back as a very successful coach at a time of Surrey dominance in domestic cricket, his playing career was sadly unfulfilled.

It is not only slow bowlers who get to the stage when they feel they cannot let go of the ball for fear of where it might go. Quicker bowlers are not immune. Kevin Emery made a spectacular entry into first-class cricket with 83 wickets for Hampshire in his debut season. He played for England B, taking four good wickets against the Pakistanis, and was close to selection for the winter’s Ashes tour.

At the start of the following season, he suffered a chipped bone in his ankle, tried to rush back into action and took only five wickets in his five matches. He lost so much confidence that he could not bowl again in first class cricket at the age of 24. He tried reverting to the off-spin that had got him into the England Schools side, but it was to no avail and the yips had claimed another victim.

If such an affliction can have a lighter side, it comes in a story from Derbyshire. They had another of the blighted breed of left-arm spinners, a worthy county cricketer by the name of Fred Swarbrook. The story goes that he got a bad dose of the yips and was dropped from the first team because there was just no knowing where the ball might go. He was even dropped from the second team.

Swarbrook was so desperate to revive his career that he consulted an elderly faith healer in Ilkeston. This unlikely source of cricketing redemption gave him a pebble that he was advised to rub just before he bowled every ball. Whether it had magic powers in reality could never be established, but it worked for Swarbrook.

He got back into the second team and bowled without the trace of a problem. He was bowling well in practice, rubbing away at his pebble. Then the call came for a return to first-team cricket. The moment arrived when he was called on to bowl. He set the field with his captain, rubbed the pebble and bowled – a ball that bounced twice and went wide. He rubbed his pebble, bowled again, only to see it sail high over the wicket-keeper’s head. Another rub on the pebble, another double-bouncer. The embarrassed silence from everyone on the field was broken by a suggestion from slip. “Hey, Fred, try rubbing the ball and bowling the pebble!”

If there is anything crueller than the yips in cricket, it is the sense of humour from teammates of the afflicted.