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Pakistan v Australia 2022

Whatever happened to Yasir Shah?

Yasir Shah Tests
Aadya Sharma by Aadya Sharma
@Aadya_Wisden 4 minute read

Not too long ago, Yasir Shah was Pakistan’s strike weapon in Tests, shattering long-standing records on his way to 200 Test wickets. Ahead of the Australia Tests, Aadya Sharma tries to make sense of the decline of one of the great spinners of the modern age.

In July 2016, roughly a month before Pakistan climbed to the top of the Test rankings for the very first time, Yasir Shah raced to the top spot in the bowling charts. It was the first time in 11 years that a leg-spinner had reached the top spot, and also the first time a Pakistan bowler had occupied pole position in two decades. Yasir Shah was the toast of the nation, having spun Pakistan to a famous victory at Lord’s with match figures of 10-141 against England. At that time, he had 86 wickets from 13 Tests, and George Lohmann’s 120-year-old record for the fastest to 100 Test wickets looked in serious doubt.

Before that England tour, Yasir’s wicket-taking spree was digested by critics with a pinch of salt, considering that his first 12 Tests were all in the subcontinent. Away from home was where the real test lay, and as he went further in his career, tours to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean beckoned. And yet, while the flow of wickets slowed, there was still a steady stream of victims. The leg-spinner didn’t break Lohmann’s record, but two years later, he became the fastest to 200 Test wickets, getting to the milestone by his 33rd Test. Shane Warne himself was a massive fan. At least his tweets said so.

When Saeed Ajmal faded away from international cricket in 2014, the general feeling was that Pakistan’s  Test side would struggle to find a replacement as incisive and match-turning as the off-spinner. Yasir, though, took on from where Ajmal left off, and when he crossed the 200-wicket mark in 2018 – making him the fourth Pakistan spinner to do so – it looked like the then 32-year-old could give Wasim Akram’s record tally a serious run for the money.

Ever since assailing Mt.200 in December 2018, though, Yasir Shah’s stocks have taken a serious hit. He’s missed eight out of Pakistan’s 20 Tests since the beginning of 2019, his absence caused by a variety of issues.

The dip began on the 2018/19 trip to South Africa, when Yasir managed just one wicket in three innings, and was replaced by Shadab Khan, returning from injury, with Pakistan looking to include two all-rounders in the XI.

A return to Tests came late in the year in Australia, a host country that has only been selectively kind to spinners. Yasir’s deterioration was evident, and his past demons returned to haunt him when Australia plundered 402 runs off him across two innings on the tour. Two years before that, he’d tallied 291 runs alone in the Sydney Test, also recording the worst-ever economy rate in an innings (8.85).

It became evident that, barring his relative success in England (30 wickets at 38.06), Yasir struggled to create much impact abroad. In Australia, his average stands at 89.50, in South Africa, it’s 123.00, and in New Zealand, 65.00. It’s meant that Pakistan have had to look elsewhere for options, with Nauman Ali and Sajid Khan’s emergence giving them enough to tinker with. Yasir’s strengths, which relied on him consistently hitting the mark with a little turn, soon became a target for batters to score easy runs off. Away from home, the gulf in performances has been huge.

Even in Asia, Yasir’s numbers have taken a hit, although he continues to show his usual spark here and there: in the Karachi Test against South Africa last year, he snared seven wickets, combining well with Nauman Ali to lead Pakistan to victory. However, his average in Asia – which is 25.39 overall – has climbed to 36.50 in the last three years.

Off-field, there was another hurdle to pass, when reports of his involvement in a case pertaining to the rape of an alleged minor surfaced late last year, for which he was named in an FIR. In December, PCB chairman Ramiz Raja expressed his displeasure over the reports, saying that “such headlines are not good for Pakistan cricket”, even though Yasir was eventually cleared of all charges in January this year.

Another Test series against Australia awaits Yasir Shah, but this time, his recent numbers aren’t as eye-catching as they were when he last played them in Asia, in 2018. This time, he’s no longer Pakistan’s lead weapon, but part of the reserves list, with skipper Babar Azam, speaking ahead of the first Australia Test, saying that “he’s still regaining his fitness”, having not played a competitive game in the “last one or two months” [since December 2021].

Yasir’s current ICC Test bowling rank is 34; he last played a Test in August, missing the Bangladesh series late last year due to a thumb injury, where off-spinner Sajid Khan led the charts with 16 wickets at 15.00. He’s now 35 – a late bloomer in international cricket, age would hardly bother him – but the downward slide is evident, compounded by the fact that he doesn’t play other formats to prove if he’s fit and incisive enough. And, with left-arm spinner Saud Shakeel and leg-spinner Zahid Mahmood in the current squad to support Nauman Ali and Sajid Khan, Pakistan already has one eye on newer spin options.

“He has been one of Pakistan’s best spinners and whenever he can regain fitness, we will be utilising his expertise,” Babar said, when speaking about Yasir. With home series lined up later in the year, there could be a path for Yasir to return, but we might have already seen his best. Pakistan are now ranked sixth in the world; for their next ascent to the No.1 spot, they might be already grooming their next Yasir.

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