Yasir Shah’s Test numbers have waned since the start of 2019, but Pakistan might have missed a trick by not including him in their squad to face England, writes Shashwat Kumar.
Yasir’s career can be labelled a classic Pakistan what-if story. He has 244 Test wickets to his name – the fifth-most in their history – and rose to stardom at a time when Pakistan were reeling after Saeed Ajmal was suspended for an illegal bowling action. He was the quickest to reach 200 Test wickets – he played three matches fewer than Clarrie Grimmett – casting himself in the pantheon of all-time greats. Yet, whenever you look at Yasir, however, it feels he could have scaled even higher peaks.
Much of that is down to his dwindling returns in the recent past. Since the start of 2019, he has picked up 41 wickets in 23 innings at an average of 46.43 and a strike rate of 75. Prior to that, he had picked up 203 wickets in 66 innings at an average of 28.33 and a strike rate of 55. He has not been a regular in Pakistan’s Test setup either, having only played five Test matches since the start of 2021.
Yasir’s most recent gig came during Pakistan’s tour of Sri Lanka this July. He was the visitors’ second-highest wicket-taker, but that was down to the sheer number of overs (93, the most for Pakistan) he bowled in the series. So, there is no denying that Yasir is not the bowler he once was, and is not a shoo-in like he was during the mid-2010s.
If you look at it from that perspective alone, his omission makes sense. In his stead, Pakistan have included young mystery spinner Abrar Ahmed, currently the leading wicket-taker in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. Thus, on form, if Pakistan were to have just a solitary leg-spinner, it would probably be Abrar. Yet, from his early days, Yasir had the knack of producing the occasional miracle ball that seemed beyond the ability of the usual leg-spinner.
Consider the Sri Lanka tour. Despite unexceptional returns, there was one moment of magic that encapsulated his genius. He produced a brilliant delivery that bamboozled Kusal Mendis and evoked memories of Shane Warne’s Ball of the Century. It did not happen as frequently as Pakistan would have hoped, although it was enough to remind them what Yasir still has in his locker.
Yasir also has fond memories of playing against England. Back in 2016, he took ten wickets to help Pakistan to a famous win at Lord’s. He averages 32.55 against England for his 45 wickets. His propensity to go for wickets can be key against an England side that is expected to attack the bowling, especially in Shaheen Shah Afridi’s absence. He may concede runs, but will always be in the game due of to his ability to produce wicket-taking deliveries. The sweeps and reverse-sweeps would also have been tougher to execute against the over-spin and bounce he generates.
The Pakistan pitches are very conducive to spinners, which will blunt the finger-spinners, as they did during the Australia series earlier this year. Pakistan have tried to rectify it by including wrist-spinners Abrar and Zahid Mahmood, but neither has Yasir’s pedigree.
Yasir is not a stranger to battles. He made his First-class debut in 2002 at 15, but had to wait till 2014 to make his Test bow. He also had to fill the massive void Ajmal’s suspension left in the side, and did so with aplomb, creating a near-immediate impact on the best in the world.
I'm liking my man Yasir Shah's energy & shape on the ball, also his over spinner & patience !! He's going to take 200 + test wickets 👍
— Shane Warne (@ShaneWarne) November 2, 2014
— Anil Kumble (@anilkumble1074) November 20, 2014
There may not be much recent evidence for him to stake a claim, but top cricketers usually have one great performance left in them. And this series against England, on Pakistan’s home patch, could have been the perfect setting for Yasir.
Scalping 244 Test wickets is no joke. For that fact alone, his place in Pakistan’s cricketing folklore is assured, irrespective of the ongoings of the past few years. But somewhere, cricket enthusiasts would have wanted to see Yasir strutting his stuff against England, possibly even as a last hurrah.
Sounds like another classic what-if story, does it not? Well, that has been Yasir’s career in a nutshell.