KARACHI: While Yasir Shah continues to make headlines and win accolades for his mesmerising bowling at Test level, many didn’t feel that he was destined for such a jaw-dropping start at this level.
His six-wicket haul in the first innings of the Lord’s Test has pushed his tally of wickets to 82. He has one more bowling innings left in his 13th Test and with the wear and tear and the double-pace nature of the pitch, he is set for another rich haul of wickets.
Yasir is closing on the record of the fastest-ever 100 wickets in Test cricket and some seven years ago one of his regional coaches didn’t think that there was anything outstanding in his bowling.
“Some seven, eight years ago I first saw him play for Abbottabad region and my first impression of him was that he was an average bowler. Back then, he didn’t use to turn the ball big, he was more inclined towards bowling faster deliveries” said Abdur Rehman, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) coach and manager of Pakistan Super League franchise Peshawar Zalmi in an interview with The Express Tribune.
Rehman, who is one of a handful of qualified level-four coaches in Pakistan has played a leading role in the transformation of Peshawar and K-P region as a potent force in domestic cricket. He first coached Yasir during Pakistan A’s tour to the West Indies.
“I was the head coach on that tour, the pitches there were extremely slow and low and Yasir didn’t find it easy but the amazing thing was that he never let his shoulders droop. He was willing to experiment and learn the nuances of leg-spin bowling,” he recalled.
Breakthrough after Kaneria’s exit
Rehman monitored Yasir’s progress as he went through the grind of Pakistan’s domestic cricket scene on some unresponsive tracks. As Danish Kaneria faded away after the Essex fixing scandal, Yasir emerged as a possible replacement.
However the Swabi-born had to wait till late 2014 for his Test debut since the spinners’ spots in the longest format elevens were occupied by Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman.
“I think the breakthrough for him came when Kaneria exited the scene and Ajmal was called for throwing,” said Rehman. “Pakistan needed a leg-spinner [then]. I would give him a lot of credit for the way he has bowled at the international level; his transformation is absolutely remarkable since he wasn’t an instant success in our domestic scene but he took to international cricket like a duck to water.”
Rehman also praised Yasir’s happy-go-lucky attitude and energy and said that his body language is one of the main reasons for his success.
“His strength is that his body language is incredibly strong. He is a team man and whenever he bowls, he bowls with a lot of vigour and determination. His energy is contagious and he has a very positive outlook towards life,” claimed Rehman.
Rehman thinks that Yasir’s accuracy as a leg-spinner has made him such a potent force since he is always making batsmen think about his variations which land on the right spot.
“His googly and flipper makes him very potent, these two deliveries are his real strength,” he said. “He keeps the batsmen guessing with his variations, and the speed with which he bowls also makes it tough for batsmen to attack him with a sense of liberty and freedom.
“I honestly feel that he’s bowling much better compared to domestic level and for that we really need to give him credit for adapting so quickly to the demands of the game at the highest level,” he concluded.
Woakes' outstanding 10-over spell either side of lunch might easily have been rewarded with more than two wickets - to add to his career-best six for 70 in the first innings - and by the close he had added another five for 31.
His skill and discipline did most to claw back Pakistan's advantage, as they reached stumps on 214 for eight and an overall lead of 281 in an enthralling contest which seems sure to go to the wire - if not quite the full five-day distance.
England managed just one morning breakthrough, after losing their own last three wickets to be bowled out for 272 as Yasir Shah took one more to finish with six for 72.
Then in sunny conditions, but with swing available and on a pitch offering a little variable bounce, Stuart Broad struck in only his second over when Mohammad Hafeez fenced a catch high to Joe Root at second slip to go for a duck.
Azhar Ali joined Shan Masood to help the tourists to 40 for one at lunch - but Woakes was already posing plenty of problems, and he upped the ante in the afternoon.
He was off-driven for four by Masood but slanted one across the left-hander next ball for an edge to slip off the back foot.
Azhar then fell foul of a marginal DRS process, umpire's call working in England's favour after Woakes brought one up the slope.
Woakes and Broad had dried up the scoring opportunities to a bare trickle, and Misbah-ul-Haq decided the correct response was to get after Moeen Ali.
What worked in his first innings century, however, immediately backfired second time round as he fell for a second-ball duck - very well caught by Alex Hales on the deep midwicket boundary after climbing into an ambitiously early slog-sweep at the off-spinner.
Pakistan had lost three wickets for 16, and were vulnerable - but Younus Khan dug in, and rode his luck.
There was no boundary for 14 overs, until a mis-field at point got new batsman Asad Shafiq off the mark.
Younus, as ever, belied his expertise with a homespun variety of twitches around the crease into a series of awkward square-on positions.
But he stood between England and a truly telling surge through Pakistan's middle order, twice surviving lbw calls on DRS - Jake Ball denied by the thinnest of inside-edges and Steven Finn by the Lord's slope past leg-stump.
England's attack perhaps deserved better, and could not be faulted, but it was credit to Younus and Shafiq that their stand of 69 extended into the evening session.
Younus became the second of Pakistan's heavyweights to mis-calculate against Moeen, bowled trying to cut an off-break which was too full and too close - to go for a stoic but highly valuable 25 off 95 balls.
Then the returning Woakes saved the best ball of the day for Shafiq, bowled one short of his 50 by one that nipped up the slope of a perfect length.
Counter-attacking Sarfraz Ahmed had already shown his hand, though - and he and Yasir made England pay for dropping each off the luckless Finn in a partnership of 40 which kept Pakistan ahead of the game.
Yasir had only two when he chipped one to mid-off, where a tumbling Broad could not gather, and then Sarfraz was badly dropped by Jonny Bairstow when he edged an attempted drive behind on 36.
England needed Woakes again, from the pavilion end for the first time, to see off Sarfraz before the close - Bairstow safe when a second edge came - and for good measure, he made it five for the innings again when Wahab Riaz looped another behind off the glove.
Yasir had earlier recorded the best figures by any visiting spinner at Lord's since South Africa's Sid Pegler in 1912, and Woakes finished stranded on an unbeaten 35 as England's first innings lasted little more than a further half hour on the resumption.
Wahab softened Broad up with two short balls, and then castled him with a yorker.
Ball was last out when he was just short of his ground trying to get back for a Woakes two to the first ball of a Wahab over.
In between, Finn pushed forward to Yasir and missed to become the leg-spinner's fourth lbw victim of the innings.
England will have to play him much better second time round if they are to pull off their highest chase on this ground to avoid going 1-0 down with three to play.