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YASIR’S FOOD FOR THOUGHT

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.

ENGLAND IN A SPIN

Much of the talk in the aftermath of England’s defeat to Pakistan in the first Test at Lord’s was on the contrast between Moeen Ali and his Pakistani counterpart Yasir Shah.

As Yasir sprung to the top of the ICC Test rankings for bowlers, Moeen now has his place under threat. While Yasir got more turn and had a had a higher chance of taking wickets according to nearest neighbour analysis, the difference in terms of pure data between the two bowlers was a slim one.

England v Pakistan 1st Test, Lord'sMoeen AliYasir Shah
Average degrees of turn3.223.86
Average length (metres from stumps)4.6m4.64m
Average weighted runs per ball0.430.43
Average wicket probability per ball (%)1.21.34

Moeen didn’t bowl badly. He performs at pretty close to his potential ability as possible, maintaining a consistent line and length and getting the ball to turn on a regular basis.

While he had the odd horror ball, like the ball in each innings that slipped out of his hand and got to the batsmen at head height, this was a steady performance by England’s spinner. He was just played very well by the Pakistan players, especially Misbah-ul-Haq in the first innings, who took him for 32 runs from just 23 balls, including seven fours. Misbah targeted him successfully in the first innings, but less so second time around.

This is not to say Moeen is as good a bowler as Yasir, who is clearly a world class performer streets ahead of the England off spinner, but the difference between the two is not as simple as saying Moeen bowled badly and Yasir bowled well.

The massive difference between these two bowlers is that Yasir has the ability to turn the ball both ways. Every single delivery that Moeen pitched in this Test turned from off to leg, so into the right hander and away from the left hander. There was a wide range of the degrees of turn, from 0.69 degrees to 7.9 degrees, but all of them went the same way. The batsmen knew what to expect and could adjust.

Yasir on the other hand got the ball to turn in both directions. His biggest leg break turned 11.16 degrees, his biggest turning googly moved 2.81 degrees the other way. A difference of 13.97 degrees – more than enough to keep a batsman guessing.

Batsmen can play with more confidence against off-spin than they can against high quality leg-spin. This difference in approach is very apparent in the context of these teams’ respective batting line-ups. England as a batting unit lack a plan against Yasir that the tourists have for Moeen.

The point here is that Moeen is not objectively bowling badly, he is just struggling to trouble Test class batsmen on a consistent basis. The question isn’t one of whether he is bowling well, it is whether he is good enough at this level. If it was a question of form rather than ability the fix would be an easier one, but throughout his career Moeen has made the absolute most of what he has got.

Adil Rashid has been brought into the squad for the Old Trafford Test. He has the advantage of possessing a googly that can turn the other way from his stock ball, something that Moeen has never mastered despite occasional talk of him working on a Doosra. That makes him a different challenge for the Pakistan batsmen, but history tells us that Rashid is more likely to bowl boundary balls than Moeen, not less.

With few other notable spin options in county cricket the selectors have a straight choice between premier off-spinner and leg-spinner. However, with a glut of all-rounders at their disposal they might choose both for the second Test.

Yasir, offering control and wicket-taking threat, is two bowlers in one. It is perhaps logical that England need to select two spinners to instil those characteristics in their spin attack.

LAYING FOUNDATIONS

The United Arab Emirates is an appropriate place to seek the fresh laying of solid foundations. England have not settled on a Test opening partnership in recent years and Alastair Cook will have another new partner as his team seeks to construct some high-rise totals in keeping with the Emirati skyline.

Six players have tried to fill the role Andrew Strauss vacated in 2012. The lack of progress is shown by the fact that the man first given the chance was the most successful. Nick Compton averaged 57.9 in his 17 opening stands with Cook; none of the subsequent five candidates have averaged above 32.3 in unison with the skipper.

Compton was partly dropped for his slow scoring, a trait that has characterised all of these partnerships – the desire to pair Cook with a more fluent scorer led the selectors to Adam Lyth, whose average first wicket run rate of 2.83 with Cook was the highest of the six combinations.

England opening partnerships since August 2012
Cook and..PartnershipsRunsHighestRuns per over100 standsAverage
Compton179272312.69357.9
Robson11355662.76032.3
Lyth134021772.83130.9
Root10266682.25026.6
Trott61541252.44125.7
Carberry10250852.81025.0

Current candidates Alex Hales and Moeen Ali offer various attributes, but both have the range of shot and intent that is seemingly required in the continuing search for top order stability.

After hitting 907 Test runs at an average of 50.4 this year, Cook’s patient approach of accumulation is in good order – will it be Moeen’s elegant left-handed aggression or the powerful belligerence of Hales that provides the impetus?

The Cook – Compton axis was a crucial part of England’s success in India in 2012/13. They piled up 493 runs in their eight opening stands, at an average of 70.4. Their steady scoring rate of 2.69 runs per over was not a problem in the context of such productivity – Cook in particular went on to score heavily against toiling spinners when well-set.

However, a solid base does not guarantee success in spin-friendly environments. David Warner and Chris Rogers largely did a good job at the top of Australia’s order in their humbling 2-0 defeat against Pakistan in the UAE in 2014/15. Australia were comprehensively out-batted overall.

They averaged 53 in their four partnerships, recording their team’s highest stand of a disastrous tour, 128 in the very first Australian stand of the series at Dubai. Pakistan’s average opening partnership was 35.8, but this was the only area that the tourists out-batted the series winners.

Average partnerships 2014/15
WicketPakistanAustralia
135.853.0
255.012.0
3174.016.3
4202.532.0
558.538.5
674.036.3
736.011.5

The first wicket was the only one in the top seven for which Australia had a higher average partnership than Pakistan. Solid starts were wasted by an under-performing engine room: Pakistan averaged 174 for the third wicket, Australia 16.3. The disparity was 170.5 runs for the fourth wicket.

Australia’s batsmen were blown away in the UAE in 2014/15. England will need to have more than a steady opening partnership if they are to prosper against Pakistan’s talented bowling unit.