Pakistan don’t play enough Test cricket.
On the morning of Monday 26 November, Moeen Ali completed England’s clean sweep of Sri Lanka. With a four-wicket haul to finish the series Moeen ended up as the highest wicket-taker for England on their historic tour. By the end of it, he had 161 wickets in 55 Test matches.
Across the Arabian Sea, Yasir Shah was playing his 32nd Test. Yasir made his Test debut four months after Moeen did.
It bears repeating, Pakistan don’t play enough Test cricket.
Since Yasir made his debut six international teams have played more Tests than Pakistan – over the course of a decade that might go down as the second-best red-ball era Pakistan have had, seven teams have played more Tests. Pakistan are defined by intermittent two-match sojourns masquerading as Test series, in a forgotten part of the world, where they compete with matches lasting shorter than an afternoon nap. Simply put, Pakistan don’t play enough Test cricket.
This reality colours the careers and, perhaps as importantly, the perceptions of Pakistan’s Test specialists. For instance, there have been questions over Azhar Ali’s fitness (particularly his knee), his form and his age, and yet despite playing every single Test Pakistan has played since the end of the MisYou era he has seemed like a long lost friend. Over the last 560 days Azhar Ali has played 37 days of international cricket – how exactly are you supposed to reach a conclusion on that small a sample size; not that it has stopped anyone in Pakistan in doing so.
Thus, we come to Yasir. He took the last wicket of the MisYou era and it seemed appropriate. A man who had played nearly all of his department cricket under Misbah, and a lot of his regional cricket under Younis, who ended up being the talisman for their journey to the Mace, finishing it all off seemed appropriate. Yet that series was also the debut series of Mohammad Abbas. And everything that had once been the domain of Yasir, in the public consciousness at least, was transferred over to Abbas. Abbas was the stick to sing the virtues of domestic cricket about, to beat the T20 generation with, to laud only to disparage someone else. And he was the talisman.
And none of it was Yasir’s fault. His numbers haven’t really declined over the past year-and-a-half, but the moments that he seemed to own now were belonging to Abbas. Pakistan’s first series after the MisYou era was “home” to Sri Lanka. It ended up being a reminder that what the team had managed to do in the decade prior to that – remain unbeaten in a home that wasn’t their home – was remarkable.
Yasir was one of the rare bright spots in a lost series – taking 16 wickets at 25, but he was out-bowled by Rangana Herath. That was followed by six months without any cricket in whites, and by the time Pakistan’s tour to Britain and Ireland did come about, Yasir was injured. Abbas ended up being the star of the tour, and between him and the lot that had ushered in the white ball revolution with the Champions Trophy victory, Yasir was being forgotten through no fault of his own. Perhaps if Pakistan played regular Test cricket his narrative would be under more of his control, but alas, Pakistan don’t play enough Test cricket.
So, by the time this “home” season came around Yasir had played only 2 ODIs in nearly 12 months of cricket. Pakistan had to play five Tests at home before touring South Africa – eight Tests in four months might as well be El Nino for Pakistan’s red-ball specialist – and all eyes were on Yasir. It felt like the anticipation for a long-awaited sequel more than the latest episode of a long-running TV show. And when Australia were able to survive him and Pakistan on a Day 5 wicket in Dubai the knives were out. Was Yasir ever that good? Many had been waiting for him to be found out (or “exposed” as the term is used here). He was, after all, a leg spinner from a country that only considered someone a quality wrist spinner if he spun it big and bowled the googly, neither of which Yasir did with much aplomb.
For four years they had waited for this discussion – first they could say he was only doing it in the UAE, when he did it in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, he was only doing it in Asia; when he did it in England, it was Misbah’s captaincy and the English not being good enough. One series in Australia counted more against him than a dozen where he had succeeded. Perhaps worst of all he was being called the new Kaneria.
Kaneria has an odd relationship with Pakistan. Even before his ban and recent admission he was never truly loved. He is the highest wicket taking spinner in Pakistan’s history, yet he left everyone unsatisfied – he took fifteen 5-fers in his career: nine of them came at a cost of over 100 runs, of the other six three were against Bangladesh in the era when the Tigers weren’t competitive. Comparing Yasir to Kaneria was to show that like his predecessor Yasir too took wickets that cost too much. When did he ever run through a batting line-up as a match-winner is supposed to?
One session on a Dubai afternoon later, the whole country was reminded of the fact that not since Wasim Akram was breaking toes has Pakistan had a better, more consistent and more reliable bowler than Yasir. In one afternoon he reminded everyone who had forgotten over the past eighteen months of who he is – a wrist spinner with almost unnatural control, who can spin it big when he wants to, only that he doesn’t feel like he needs to.
Everything was on a length that drew the batsman forward, yet short enough that he couldn’t get to the pitch of it; and every time it pitched the batsman didn’t know if it was a turner or one that would go with the arm – you don’t need a googly if your top spinner does the job. Barely two months on from taking just one wicket in 63 overs of domestic cricket, Yasir Shah was Midas again. It turns out that players returning from injury need time to get back into the rhythm that had made them great – the reports of his demise had been greatly exaggerated.
By the end of the day, the question was no longer about Yasir’s form, but exactly which records he had broken, and which he had missed out on. Yasir was, quite simply, Yasir again.