Much like ‘second home’ in Prime Minister Modi’s recent speeches, the phrase ‘sport is a great leveller’ is well worn. Friday and Saturday gave us another glimpse of how true the old, if clichéd, adage holds. England’s wrecker-in-chief at Lord’s, Yasir Shah, found his own figures in shambles after an imperious display of batting by a certain Joe Root.
Yasir’s returns were a far cry from the heroics of his last Test, in which he took six for 72 and four for 69 to propel his team to a victory and himself to the number one spot in the Test bowlers rankings. On Saturday, he finished the first innings with figures of one for 213 in 54 overs. Clearly, Manchester had made up it’s mind to not be as accommodating as the more civil environs of St John’s Wood were to the tourists. The appearance of the long foretold booing of Mohammed Amir put this beyond doubt.
Possibly, Yasir never expected to be the one Pakistan looked to for wickets, England being the land of swing and seam after all. As Mushtaq Ahmed said after the first day, "Sometimes the expectation does put you under pressure and you are trying to deliver the same performance." But to better understand the reasons behind Yasir’s disappointment at Old Trafford, we first need to understand those behind his success at Lord's.
In London, Misbah-ul-Haq had no hesitation in batting first after winning the toss. England’s trio of right arm seamers then toiled away, the spikes on their overburdened feet creating a rough outside the left hander’s off stump. Then Pakistan's three left armers took their turn, and created a rough outside the right handers off stump. By the time Yasir came on to bowl, he had a rough on both sides of the wicket to work with. While it was not the kind of rough that has the batsmen visualising cobras, it was enough to sow the seed of doubt in their minds, and that is all a good bowler needs.
Make no mistake, this is not to take anything away from Yasir’s achievements. The rough accumulates outside the invisible danger-area, that box which bowlers and umpires have to see without seeing. Ergo, the rough is not in an area where a bowler traditionally looks to land the ball. And yet, a good bowler can use it to play the most important game with the batsman: the one in the mind.
This takes variation and great control, both of one’s line and length, and of the revolutions imparted to the ball. Sharp but consistent turn is easier to play than little but inconsistent turn, and a bowler who can impart less or more revolutions at will is far more dangerous than one who gives it a rip every single time. Yasir put on display all these skills at the Home of Cricket, and used the conditions like a master. But there is no denying that the conditions did exist. At the risk of being trolled by Yasir’s fans, this was why I thought (even though England lost) Chris Woakes’ record efforts (11 wickets on a pitch where every other seamer struggled, plus runs to boot) were more deserving of the Man of the Match award.
While quite a few records and personal bests have been set in this series so far, one stat, and its implications, seems to have flown under the radar. Before the Old Trafford Test, Misbah had won eight tosses in a row. While that does not sound like a lot at first glance, those eight Test matches stretch back more than a calendar year. Barring two matches, Pakistan batted first in all of them. The two where they fielded first were both against Sri Lanka, one whose first day was lost to rain, and the second on a green pitch. It is needless to replicate the figures that show how much success Yasir has enjoyed over this period, but I will do so anyway: 56 wickets in seven Test matches, having missed the first Test against England in October 2015 (the only match among these eight that produced a draw). For one magical year, Yasir, thanks to his own skill, and the good fortune his captain seems to impart the coin, has enjoyed the best of bowling conditions, some of those bowling first as well.
Wisden Editor and Daily Mail journalist Lawrence Booth suggested before this match that the toss could decide the series.
Is it too strong to suggest this toss could decide the series? Probably. But I'll say it anyway.
— Lawrence Booth (@the_topspin) July 22, 2016
As cricketers, we tell ourselves that the toss is out of our hands, so it doesn’t matter. Win or lose, bat first or bowl first, we simply need to focus on executing our skills. Watch the ball, and watch the spot. That is all that exists. Yet show me one spinner who would not prefer bowling in the second and fourth innings, and I will show you a liar. It is a lie we tell the mind, similar to those that we tell our bodies toward that fag end of careers, that everything will be all right. It is a good lie to tell, if there is such a thing. Nonetheless, after Saturday’s evisceration via double hundred by Root, Yasir Shah might just be asking Misbah discreetly, “Skip, did you use the same coin?”
Thanks to whatever good ‘carma’ Misbah seemingly accumulates while he is not playing Test cricket, Yasir has had the best of the toss and the conditions over the last year. He has shown the world he has the bravura to be counted as one of the most exciting Test players of his generation. If he comes back and imposes himself on this match,and every game in future where the conditions are against him, he could well end up as one of the greats.