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Can Yasir Shah adapt to his "changing" role in the Pakistan Test side?

Yasir Shah celebrates his 200th Test wicket AFP

The crowds piled in from before the sun had emerged back up the sky. The stadium began to buzz again, just as it had 15 years ago, when this last happened. It was a momentous day for the country, as, at long last, Pakistan finally began to emerge from the pit they found themselves in on March 3, 2009. This cricket-crazy, single-sport country had its single sport back. Sri Lanka were here, and so, after 15 years, was Test cricket in Rawalpindi. Pakistan rejoiced.

Amid the celebrations, the excitement of players who would finally get to ditch the inverted commas and actually play at home, the conspicuous absence of one man slightly soured the occasion. The man arguably more responsible for making the UAE ("home", remember) such a fortress for this Pakistani Test side in their years of exile was nowhere to be seen as his team-mates lined up to get a first taste of Test match action in Pakistan. He was probably the best spinner in the world for the best part of five years, and his numbers in that period were record-breaking. It had barely been a year since he dismantled an 82-year-old record to become the quickest bowler to take 200 Test wickets. He had won games for Pakistan too numerous to recall by memory. He stood alone atop the perch, but now, perched above the action in the dressing room, perhaps for the first time, Yasir Shah really felt alone.

There is no doubt Shah's form has taken a hit over the past 14 months or so, though to be speculating about his place in the side at this stage still feels vulturous. The series just prior to this drop in form, he had taken 29 wickets in three Tests against New Zealand in the UAE, and since then, four of the six Tests he played took place in South Africa and Australia, where he has historically struggled. Shah does average over 70 across these six Tests, and even that number is somewhat buffered by the four he took in the second innings against Bangladesh - three tailenders after the match was as good as won.

Even so, this wouldn't be a concern at any other stage of his career. Except for the fact there is an excellent chance the fortress that saw him amass that success and hone both his craft and reputation, is a country Pakistan may not play another Test in. One-hundred-sixteen of his 213 wickets have come in the UAE, in a scarcely believable 17 Tests. And the signs Pakistan don't feel Shah can quite match those achievements now they have moved back to Pakistan, combined with his struggles on the road - especially in the southern hemisphere - don't quite bode as well for his future in the side.

It doesn't help that Shah's drop in form came just at the moment he needed his brilliance the most, and Pakistan dropping him for that first Test in Rawalpindi against Sri Lanka sent out a clear message he was no longer an automatic selection in the side. An underwhelming performance in Karachi didn't help matters, and it was almost a surprise to see him take the field against Bangladesh last week, particularly as captain Azhar Ali had, on the eve of the Test, talked up the possibility of playing with three seamers and a fast-bowling allrounder the norm in Pakistan in the future.

Some perspective may be in order, though. That Shah took six wickets in the match and still doesn't quite convince people is a tribute in itself to the almost superhuman levels of performance he was putting in, in the UAE. In that sense, he may be a victim of his own success. Test cricket in Pakistan is very different from that in the UAE, and pitches nowhere in the country offer legspinners the same kind of assistance. Coupled with the deliberate direction Pakistan appear to be taking, at least for now, of grooming pitches more conducive to quality fast bowling, he is likely to find his role in the side changing from spearhead to support act.

"If you look at Test matches in the past in Pakistan, it is true spinners took wickets but there isn't the sort of turn here that the UAE provides, even if the wicket is flat," Ali said following his team's victory. "The turn is sharper in the UAE and rough is created much quicker. The dirt here is different; in the first innings, it is very difficult to get the ball to turn. So Yasir's role has changed slightly.

"People are expecting him to get 10-12 wickets in a match. I'm not saying he won't do that but we're preparing wickets that help the fast bowlers as much as possible, and pitches that have more carry-through to the keeper. We're trying to ensure there is more seam movement on the ball so we can trouble opposition sides, especially Asian opposition sides.

"When non-Asian opposition comes, we'll see if we go a different direction with the surfaces but for now I think the fast bowlers have been given the task of leading. Yasir, who has undoubtedly been a champion bowler for us and has proved how good he is, will begin to get those big wickets whenever the conditions are more favourable for him. This is a change for him, too. These are different conditions to bowl in than he has been used to in his international career. But he is adapting, and his performances will continue to improve."

Whether Ali's comments are good news for Shah may end up depending on his outlook. On the one hand, the captain making it clear he need not take a clump of wickets every match to prove his worth in the side should take some pressure off him. But on the other, Pakistan want to prepare tracks specifically designed to work against his best skillset, and that could mean he is surplus to requirements more and more often in the future.

In the rest of 2020, Pakistan play six Test matches, one in Karachi against Bangladesh, three in England and two in New Zealand. Those aren't places Shah has always excelled, though his performances in the first and fourth Tests in England in 2016 were reputation-forming. Remember, though, that he was strikingly ordinary in the second and third Tests, and missed the two-Test series in 2018, so which Shah we get there is very much an unknown. But since he can no longer afford to rely on home comforts to reinforce his indispensable place in the side, his performances there could be a harbinger for his future as the leader of Pakistan's spin attack.

The UAE has been extraordinarily kind to Pakistan as its adopted home for nine years. But as they turn their back on the desert, one man may find it's a little harder to say goodbye.