Remember him? Short, a little stocky, bowls some leggies, has a bit about him on the field? Burst into our heads four years ago against these very same opponents? Got some heavy Shane Warne lovin’ in the process?
Of course you remember Yasir Shah. But if he had slipped off your radar over the last 18 months, in the glow of Pakistan’s Champions Trophy win, in their subsequent rise to T20 prominence, amid the flowering of some young fresh talent, in their Lord’s and Malahide Test wins, then that’s understandable.
He’s only played two Tests in that period and because it was here, against Sri Lanka, you’ve probably forgotten about those too (even though he was, as ever, among the wickets in them). He hasn’t played a Test for exactly a year now, having missed Pakistan’s tour of England with a hip injury.
And this is the stark truth outside the Big Three bubble. It is the way for even the biggest names outside of it and Yasir is as big as they come. He’s the world’s best Test legspinner, a crown, unofficial as it may be, which used to mean something once upon a time. But schedules are such that you miss one tour, you miss an entire year, and a year is a lifetime in modern sport. And Pakistan’s domestic calendar is such that he’s only played two first-class games this year.
These long gaps – it is not uncommon for there to be five to seven months in between Tests – are a way of life for single-format specialists such as Yasir. In the four years since his Test debut, Yasir is the sixth-highest Test wicket-taker in the world, yet only one person in that top ten list has played fewer than his 28 Tests – and all of Ravindra Jadeja’s 26 Tests have come in a three-year span.
Yasir’s opposite number in this series – Nathan Lyon – has played as many as 45 Tests in that time. Lyon has played in nine different countries, learning in each and coming back now a different bowler to what he was in 2014. Yasir has played fewer Tests in seven countries. Limited opportunities to play, limited exposure, and limited opportunities for growth.
“It is difficult, especially if you get injured,” Yasir said. “It takes time to come back from those injuries and to get back that rhythm you have when you’re playing day in, day out.
“I played in Zimbabwe [two ODIs on Pakistan’s recent tour), so I’ve got some practice and my form was pretty good there. And whatever days I’ve spent here, I’ve been bowling well trying to get that rhythm back.”
If that sounds like scrounging together a few games, it is. He’s only played a couple of first-class games this year, in Pakistan last month in which he took a solitary wicket (of the no. 11) across 63 overs. That is his lot. It isn’t the most intense preparation, but that is how it goes. Even before his Test debut in 2014, he’d played just one first-class game in seven months. He’s been bowling beautifully in practice, according to Mickey Arthur, but like the past, cricket nets are a different country.
So, sadly for those who enjoy these little mind games, there will be no new delivery to spook Australia with, or if there is, he isn’t talking about it. Instead there is a determination to sharpen a hitherto blunt weapon. The Yasir googly has never been a thing, which itself stands him out from the biggest Pakistani leggies, all of whom have depended on – and richly profited from – it. “My googly was a bit weak so I’ve been working on that. I think I’m 70-80% there with it and I think that’s going to come in handy here.”
Australians, and the rest of the world, would have known little about him when he broke through four years ago. But he was easily blunted in Australia and they will have prepared themselves better this time. But this is his true habitat, on slow, low-bouncing pitches where he can work away for hours with run-rates under control and spinners alongside him. On paper at least, this is also a weaker Australian batting order.
“In 2014 they had their full side, [David] Warner and [Steve] Smith were there. That was a good batting side.
“They’re a younger side now, a few of them making their debut. But I’ve played against some of them when I played for Brisbane Heat last year so I’ve got an idea of their strengths and weaknesses.
“But you can’t say they are a weak side. Inexperienced maybe. Australia are always a strong side.”
And in case you’re wondering, though they do communicate often, Warne’s not been in touch pre-series. It’s unlikely Warne has forgotten about him but if he does hear from him at some point over the next week or two, it is probably because Yasir’s doing something right.