Matches (23)
IPL (3)
Women's Tri-Series (1)
USA vs CAN (1)
SA v SL [W] (1)
WI 4-Day (4)
County DIV1 (5)
County DIV2 (4)
ACC Premier Cup (4)
Feature

Crafty Yasir returns to Sri Lanka hoping to rediscover the glory days

After a turbulent 12 months, can he produce the magic that once made him so instrumental in Pakistan's Test domination?

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
15-Jul-2022
Yasir Shah picked up 24 wickets against Sri Lanka in 2015, helping Pakistan seal their first series win in the country since 2006  •  AFP

Yasir Shah picked up 24 wickets against Sri Lanka in 2015, helping Pakistan seal their first series win in the country since 2006  •  AFP

There was a time when it felt like Pakistan Test cricket subsisted largely on series against Sri Lanka.
Between 2009 and 2015, there were no fewer than seven Test series between the two sides, with Pakistan visiting Sri Lanka four times in six years to play 11 Tests. Only one player from each side is still part of the squad that began that cycle in 2009. For Sri Lanka, it's the relatively ever-present Angelo Mathews, and for Pakistan, whatever the opposite of that is in Fawad Alam. While Fawad's redemptive narrative arc has already been exhausted, it is another Pakistan player who might be looking to script his own over the next fortnight. He played just the final of those quickfire series in Sri Lanka, but the impact he would make provided Pakistan with a template for short-term Test domination.
Yasir Shah had only made his Test debut following Saeed Ajmal's bowling-action issues, and this excitable, gregarious legspinner was only seven months into his international career. Sure, the run-up needed sorting, an aspect none other than Shane Warne helped him fine-tune, and he needed to bowl slower to allow natural drift and spin to have its maximum impact, but there was something here to work with. Even so, having him shoulder the responsibility of matching Sri Lanka on their own turf in a spin-bowling shoot-out seemed excessive. For all of Ajmal's brilliance, there was a reason Pakistan had ended up on the wrong side of the previous three Test series results in the island nation.
What Yasir achieved was nothing short of historic. With seven, six and five-wicket innings hauls in each Test respectively, he would top the wickets charts with 24. Dhammika Prasad was a distant second with 14, and no other spinner managed double digits. Of the 52 Sri Lankan wickets to fall, nearly half came off Yasir's bowling. Pakistan would go on to seal a first series win in Sri Lanka since 2006, and in the sub-continent at least, Misbah-ul-Haq's Pakistan had the player to build the Test side around.
It wasn't just Asia either. In London the following year, Yasir would take apart England with impressive hauls at Lord's and The Oval, deploying the one that went straight on with just as much venom as the one that spun prodigiously. Pakistan rose to the top of the Test rankings off the back of that; a year later it would be West Indies in their own backyard who bore the brunt of this cricketer at the top of his game, cleaning up Shannon Gabriel with his last ball of the series to give Pakistan their only Test series win in the Caribbean. How indeed did he do that?
Part of the answer lies in faith and timing. Yasir was at his best when Pakistan had worked out how to go about making the UAE, their adopted home, a fortress, and his game style was perfect for it. In Misbah as captain, he was blessed with a leader who could perhaps watch his beard grow in real-time without losing patience. As a man who only became captain when he was on the verge of quitting the game at 36, he was an ardent believer in good things coming to those who waited. And so Yasir, a rhythm bowler par excellence, operated from one end to devastating effect, handing out the UAE drubbings like they were going out of style. He became the quickest man to 200 Test wickets in another epic series against New Zealand, when, for a surreal week or so, a Dunedin-born Australian legspinner who played in the years between the two World Wars called Clarrie Grimmett became something of a household name in Pakistan.
All this, remember, had happened over the span of barely four years, and just as quickly as it occurred, the unravelling began. Misbah, Yasir's strongest backer, had stepped away from the game, and Pakistan now had a no-nonsense fitness enthusiast in Mickey Arthur as coach. Yasir was the first man he cited as an example of laxity in this department in the Pakistan side. Besides, consecutive series in South Africa and Australia followed. He was especially ordinary, and missed games in both series. In fact, in the Southern Hemisphere, Yasir's 20 wickets have come at 87 apiece at an economy rate of 4.37.
Most of all, however - and this must be a particularly bittersweet one to acknowledge - Pakistan finally moved back home from the UAE, both his kingdom and his comfort blanket. In Pakistan, pace bowlers are at the top of the food chain, with wickets tailored to their desires. Azhar Ali, then Pakistan's captain, euphemistically referred to his "changing role" in the side, but few were in any doubt as to what that meant.
The fast bowlers did indeed take over, and Yasir dropped off. His average in Pakistan was 36.50; in the UAE, he had taken wickets at 24.56 apiece. The fitness issues began to pile up, as well as a criminal probe in Pakistan that at the time saw him become a person of interest for the police. The charges against Yasir were later dropped, though.
Pakistan thought they had spin talent coming through the Quaid-e-Azam trophy, with Sajid Khan and Nauman Ali topping the domestic bowling charts last year, and gently, Yasir was phased out. But despite an encouraging spin-dominated series win in Bangladesh, Pakistan were reminded of what they missed in an insipid, uninspiring series for its spinners against Australia. Seven years after that Sri Lanka series, the challenge ahead of Pakistan loomed large, and in punting for Yasir, the visitors have gone to the well once more, praying it hasn't completely run dry.
Seven years on, age isn't on his side, and neither, tragically, is Warne, one of Yasir's most generous supporters. Sri Lanka have younger, hungrier spinners, who are also in better form, having cleaned up Australia last week. But this is, therapeutically, what Yasir perhaps needs most. It was the place where he proved his doubters wrong, his answer so resoundingly emphatic they wouldn't utter a peep for years to come. Now, they swarm once more in Sri Lanka, a country that has, over the past few weeks, shown limitless generosity in their love of this game. It might have one last gift for Yasir in store.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000