One of the reasons Pakistan were so comprehensively beaten by England in the second Test at Old Trafford lies in the temporary fall from grace of Yasir Shah.
The tourists’ most potent bowling weapon, fresh from collecting an exceptional haul of 10-141 in Pakistan’s Lord’s triumph, came to Old Trafford hell-bent on further destruction. By reputation and statistics, Manchester’s international ground tends to be a welcoming one for spinners, who take their wickets at the same average as seamers (the English norm is of course that seamers are more handsomely rewarded).
And yet what befell Yasir Shah? A painful match bag of 1-266, that’s what. And how on earth did that come about? Plenty of credence was put into the theory that this was the first opportunity for England to bat first against a Pakistan team featuring Shah, Alastair Cook having lost the toss in all three UAE Tests, plus the one at Lord’s. Thus, instead of facing familiar “scoreboard pressure” batting second, England could create a platform against the seamers on the first morning, and continue the momentum against the spinner.
But one issue with Shah that simply doesn’t get enough of an airing is his reluctance to produce much variety with his bowling, and in particular his lack of googlies. A leg-spinner cannot be a great leg-spinner without being able to confidently land and (to at least some extent) disguise a googly in whatever conditions he is presented with. Yet in this match Shah sent down four googlies. From 378 balls. Of the remaining 374 balls, one was classified as a quicker ball. The remaining 373 out of 378 were leg-breaks. So there came a point when the batsmen could sense there was a very, very high chance (98.94% as it happens) that the ball, on pitching, would move away from them if they were right-handed and into them if they were left-handed.
I plucked a random one-day international in which England’s leg-spinner Adil Rashid (who some felt was unlucky not to feature at Old Trafford), and spotted he bowled seven googlies and two top-spinners in his 10 overs. That means on average there’s one ball an over which will be different to his others.
Now I am not writing this to denigrate the usual excellence of Shah, whose international pedigree far exceeds Rashid’s. Shah’s 87 wickets in 14 Tests overall is a very healthy return indeed. But I am fairly convinced from watching great leg-spinners of the past – Abdul Qadir, Shane Warne and Anil Kumble – that variety is the spice of life, or at least the ingredient that contributes to a long and healthy career. Too often recently, exciting spinners from the sub-continent have endured frustratingly truncated careers and it would be nice to see Shah continue to spearhead Pakistan’s slow-bowling attack for a good while longer. To do that, he will need to make the batsman guess what might be coming out of his hand. If the man with the willow can put his mortgage on it being a leg-break, then the mental battle is less easy for Shah to win.
Another area in which Shah could improve is adapting his speed. You’ll often hear commentators mention that different wickets have different optimum speeds for spinners. Whereas he had done well at Lord’s on a wicket that was pretty slow and low and got lower as the match wore on, Old Trafford offered a faster surface where the bounce, fairly unusually, increased through the course of a match. England’s spinner Moeen Ali dropped his average pace quite considerably from the first innings to the second (and he worked quite heavily in practice with Saqlain Mushtaq to get more loop on the ball too). Moeen was successful in both innings – he was given more work to do in the second innings after Ben Stokes picked up an injury – and picked up highly satisfactory figures of 2-43 and 3-88. He bowled at an average of 54.87mph in the second innings and 53.05mph. By contrast, Shah actually bowled slightly faster in the second innings than he did in the first, just as he had done at Lord’s. In London, where the wicket got increasingly slower and lower, it was the right tactic. At Old Trafford, it wasn’t. Interestingly, the one wicket Shah did take at Old Trafford, Chris Woakes stabbing back a catch to the bowler, came from a delivery with a pace of 50.9mph. Yet his average paces were 51.73mph for the first innings and 52.18mph.