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Yasir Shah: What’s going wrong with Pakistan’s record-breaking leggie?

by Mike Vince 4 minute read

Yasir Shah broke onto the Test scene in 2014 as an exciting leg-spinner who quickly set his stall out as one of the world’s best. Shah is the owner of some fantastic records, he is the fastest bowler to reach 200 Test wickets, reaching the landmark in just 33 matches.

Shah displayed an ability to rip the best teams apart, taking ten wickets in a Pakistan victory at Lord’s in 2016. Unfortunately, Shah also holds some unwanted records, and his career has not been as plane sailing as it once was.

His stats tells us that his career is split into two distinct phases. For the first of which, Shah was the match-winning leg-spinner every team would covet. The first phase was the first four years of his international career, where he was a wicket-taking machine for a side that briefly topped the ICC Test team rankings. The first year of his career yielded 27 wickets at 26, and he did not slow down, racing to 200 from 33 matches by the end of 2018. As recently as 2020, Shah was one of seven players nominated for the ICC Men’s Test Cricketer of the Decade award.

But his numbers have nosedived. Recently an automatic selection in all conditions, Shah is now fighting for his place in Pakistan’s first choice team through a mixture of dwindling form and the emergence of Nauman Ali – Ali was picked ahead of Shah for the ongoing Jamaica Test against West Indies. Since reaching 200 Test wickets, his record across the board is poor. Since the beginning of 2019 Shah has 32 wickets from 12 matches at an average of 48.53.

Across Tests played in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa, Shah averages 55, which is helped by a decent record in England where he averages 38 and has had a pair of five-fors. Across games in the other Test playing nations, Shah has 189 wickets at 25. But increasingly, it was not as simple as his record being poor in these countries and good elsewhere.

After taking 29 wickets from three matches against New Zealand in late 2018, he endured a difficult series against South Africa at the beginning of 2019. He took 1 for 123 across the first two matches, before being replaced by Shadab Khan for the final match of the series where the all-rounder took four wickets.

This performance was followed by a tour Down Under. Australia has been a bit of a graveyard for spinners – with the odd notable exception – in recent years, none more so than for Shah. In the first Test, Shah took 4-205 from 48 overs as Australia racked up 580 runs to win by an innings. The next game however, was even more difficult. Shah took 0 for 197, at an economy of more than six runs per over as David Warner led Australia to 589 for 3 with his own unbeaten 335.

Later that year, Shah did not play in the opening home Test against Sri Lanka, Pakistan opting for a seam only attack in their first Test on home soil in over a decade. When picked for the next match, he bowled 33 overs, conceding 127 runs for two wickets. In 2020, he was picked for the first Test of Pakistan’s tour to England, having had success there in the past, and took eight wickets across the match as Pakistan succumbed to a narrow defeat. The following Test was ruined by the rain, while the third is remembered predominantly for Zak Crawley’s 267; Shah struggled, conceding 172 runs, with an economy of 4.44.

These differing fortunes were indicative of this period, with success generally drowned out by some tough days at the office. Fast forward to this year – a home series against South Africa in Pakistan – Shah picked up second wickets in the first Test, before taking just one in the following match. In the first Test of the ongoing West Indies series, Shah went wicketless and conceded his runs at 3.68 runs per over and ultimately lost his place in the side.

The interesting thing about this period however is he has played more matches in the aforementioned less helpful conditions (seven) than he has in conditions that should favour him (five).

This sample size is not especially helpful and the seven matches played across more pace friendly pitches do bump his average up, but his record in those other five Tests is 14 wickets at 40, which is is still less than you’d expect for a player who dominated so emphatically in the early years of his career.

Inconsistency in regions which were once his strength and an inconsistency in stifling the flow of runs are keys factors in his recent decline, with enough evidence, if less frequent, of his old ability to prize out the best.

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