Yasir Shah never gets tired of narrating this tale from one of his first tours of the United Arab Emirates. In 2014, the immigration officer at the airport took him aside and quizzed him on why he has affixed a picture of Lionel Messi on his passport. Not fluent in English or Arabic, Yasir had a tough time to convince the officer that he was an international sportsperson himself and the resemblance to the iconic football star was purely coincidental.
It did not take much longer after that tour for Yasir to create his own distinct identity. As the leg spinner shattered yet another landmark becoming the quickest bowler in the history of Test cricket to have 200 dismissals, the popularity of Yasir in cricket-crazy Pakistan could well eclipse the cult following of the football superstar.
After being out of Test cricket for almost a year where he missed out on the tour of England and Ireland due to a hip injury, the 33-year-old took time to strike form. In the first innings in the Dubai Test match against Australia this year, he went wicketless. This was the first time in the UAE that Yasir had no wicket against his name. But he refused to wilt under pressure and bagged a four wickets in the second innings. A return of eight wickets from the two Test matches against the depleted Australians was still a disappointing one by his standards.
Yasir was struck by a personal tragedy on the eve of the next series in the UAE against New Zealand when he lost his mother. But he did not let it affect his performance on the field. The prodigious turn, the drift and the deceptive bounce was back as he once again got into the act. He snared seven wickets in the first Test but he was at his venomous best in the second Test bagging eight wickets in the first innings.
In a spell of outstanding leg spin bowling before lunch on the second day, Yasir single-handedly dismantled the New Zealand top order. From 50 for no loss, New Zealand were all out for 90. Yasir would finish with 14 for 184- the second best bowling figures by a Pakistan bowler in a Test match. Only former Pakistan skipper and current Prime Minister Imran Khan with 14 for 116 against Sri Lanka in 1982 had better figures.
Sporting a disarming smile, Yasir hardly comes across as a master of deception plotting the downfall of batsmen with his magic web of turn and bounce. He uses leg break, top spinners and the sliders as his main weapons of destruction and rarely serves up the googly. In the slow pitches of UAE, he has been using more power and speed to force the ball to skid on. He has also preyed on many batsmen looking to play his fuller deliveries on the back foot by trapping them leg before. Accuracy has been one of his hallmarks and a high 44 per cent of his wickets have come from leg before and bowled. These two modes of dismissals accounted for 35 per cent of wickets of Yasir’s idol Shane Warne.
In the last four years, he has been credited to have given a new lease of life to leg spin bowling and his legion of fans include the legendary Warne. The Australian had a few bowling sessions with him in Sharjah in 2015 and the two also interacted during Pakistan’s last tour of the Down Under in 2016.
Yasir is of Pakhtun origin (commonly known as Pathans) hailing from a small but picturesque town of Swabi in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province that shares its borders with Afghanistan. The town did not have great cricket infrastructure but there was no dearth of enthusiasm for the sport. Like most of the school children, Yasir’s initiation into cricket happened with tape ball and he was soon a regular in the local tournaments.
His parents were not aware of his new passion till he started missing the afternoon prayers regularly. It was then revealed that he was busy at this time playing cricket. But after initial hesitation, Yasir received backing from his parents. He also had an able ally in one of his cousins who regularly sent him videos of Warne’s bowling footage. These cast a magical spell on young Yasir’s mind and he was now determined to become a leg spinner.
Swabi lacked training facilities and this forced Yasir to travel to bigger cities like Peshawar and Karachi to hone his skills. He made his first-class debut in the 2001-02 season but had to wait for a couple of years to establish himself as a force to reckon with in the domestic circuit. In 2008, his stocks had risen and a stint in the National Cricket Academy in Lahore where he worked with Aaqib Javed helped him to remodel his bowling action. Yasir also travelled to England to play club cricket.
He had to wait for another three years before earning his maiden call-up to the Pakistan team. He was drafted into the one-day side for a solitary match in Zimbabwe. A modest return of 2 for 50 in his ten overs did not impress the Pakistan think tank and he was dumped thereafter. The presence of frontline spinners Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal meant Yasir could not force himself into the national team and had to go back to the domestic circuit to prove his mettle.
In 2014, Saeed Ajmal was banned by the International Cricket Council for a suspect bowling action on the eve of their twin series against Australia and New Zealand in the UAE. Yasir, a veteran in the domestic circuit by now, received a call-up. Unfazed against a star-studded line-up which featured the likes of David Warner, Steve Smith and Michael Clarke, Yasir made an immediate impression bagging seven wickets in his maiden Test match.
He never looked back and was one of Misbah ul Haq’s key weapon helping Pakistan attain the world number one Test ranking.
At 32, Yasir is showing no signs of stopping and if his current form is anything to go by, the leg-spinner will continue to be Pakistan’s trump card and look all set to smash a few more records on the way.