Since Danish Kaneria’s exit in that infamous summer of 2010, perhaps the watershed moment in recent Pakistan cricket, we have given Test debuts to 10 spinners.

I am only counting frontline spinners and not batsmen who bowl a bit, such as Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik, or whatever Agha Salman is supposed to be. In descending order of overs bowled, those 10 are:

  1. Yasir Shah

  2. Saeed Ajmal

  3. Abdul Rehman

  4. Zulfiqar Babar

  5. Nauman Ali

  6. Sajid Khan

  7. Bilal Asif

  8. Shadab Khan

  9. Mohammad Nawaz

  10. Zafar Gohar

Not exactly a murderer’s row, is it?

Yasir Shah may have been a godsend for Pakistan Test cricket in the 2010s. But he’s past his prime and there aren’t very good new spinners coming through the system. Our Test Championship points depend on finding an alternative

Seven of the 10 did not pass 15 Tests (everyone below Rehman on that list). Two were chuckers (Ajmal, Bilal). One lost a chance to play because he overslept and missed a flight (Gohar). All in all, there is only one bowler on the list who legally got 100 wickets: Yasir Shah.

In my experience, few individuals more evenly divide cricket aficionados than Yasir Shah. “How good is Yasir Shah, actually?” is always a fun conversation starter.

Factors in favor: Won us two Tests in England. Won us our first ever series in the Caribbean. Won us a series in Sri Lanka. With apologies to MBZ, was King of UAE for half a decade.

Factors against: Has a shocking record in Australia (average of 90, economy rate of 4.7), South Africa (average of 123, economy rate 3.8), and New Zealand (average of 65, economy rate of 3.5). Has a pedestrian record in England, despite multiple match-winning performances there (average of 38, economy rate of 3.4).

Comparing him to the best of his contemporaries, a mixed picture emerges. The graph below plots the strike rates and economy rates of spinners with at least 150 Test wickets since 2010 (with the exception of Ajmal, excluded for the whole chucking thing). There are 11 such bowlers.

Let’s get the caveats out of the way: the conditions a bowler plays in, and the role he plays for his team, help determine his raw numbers. These statistics do not account for how good the opposition’s batsmen are, whether home pitches generally help or hurt the bowler, how many runs his batsmen give him to play with, how much pressure his fellow bowlers create for him from the other end and, conversely, how many wickets they leave for him on the table.

The best international and franchise teams, as well as private firms such as Opta and Cricviz, are privy to, and play with, much more finely-grained data than mere averages, strike rates, or economy rates.

But even if this data is blunt, it does tell us some things. One readily apparent lesson is that our neighbours to the east are very, very lucky. It is one thing to have one world class spinner, quite another to have two of the three best spinners of the last decade. India is so spoiled for choice that in away Tests they drop Ashwin, not for rest nor indiscipline nor fitness, nor because of his avant garde views about morality in cricket, but because the world’s best spinner is not good enough to play for them in those conditions.

Back to Yasir. His closest statistical comparison is, evidently, Keshav Maharaj. Maharaj is a nice bowler — just ask his bunny, Babar Azam — but is that a comparison Yasir Shah fans would feel great about?

Yasir’s positives are clear: only Ashwin and Herath, the two best spinners in cricket since the retirements of Warne and Murali, strike more regularly. The conditions argument does not favour any of the three: Indian pitches help Ashwin roughly as much as Sri Lankan pitches helped Herath, which is roughly as much as UAE pitches helped Yasir. By this metric, then, questioning Yasir seems churlish. If Ashwin and Herath are considered world class, then so should Yasir.

But Yasir’s economy rate cannot be ignored. Spinners have two primary jobs in Test cricket: winning games on days 3, 4 and 5 and controlling play on days 1 and 2. It is not immediately obvious which is the more important role.

Depending on team composition and conditions, the task of maintaining pressure while giving valuable rest to quick bowlers early in a game may be as valuable as the challenge of turning one late. Think of the aforementioned Maharaj or Jadeja, as well as the likes of Swann and Nathan Lyon, and the point becomes clear. Teams or places where quick bowlers dominate will demand different skills of frontline spinners.

That Yasir’s economy rate is only better than Moeen Ali’s among this group is significant. Moeen is not even an out-and-out frontline spinner, bowling only 30 overs/match while the rest of this list — excepting Shakib, himself an all-rounder — bowls more than 40.

For all intents and purposes, Yasir is the most expensive of all good-to-great spinners in the last decade. Outside the UAE, Yasir’s economy rate balloons to 3.5, absurdly high for a frontline spinner.

Wickets are great, but runs matter. How quickly they are conceded matters. The collective deflation that spreads through a team when a spinner goes for 5 an over, not for a spell but for a session, a day, sometimes for an entire Test and, in extreme cases, entire series — all that matters.

Here’s a crazy number: Yasir has four of the 10 most expensive figures for all bowlers in the last decade: 1-213 against England, and 3-207, 4-205, and 0-197, all against Australia. No other bowler in that “top” 10 list, by the way, appears more than once.

The same story with a different statistic: in the entire 150-year history of Test cricket, no bowler has conceded 200 runs in an innings as many times as Yasir’s three. Only two have even done it twice. At Adelaide 2019, where he returned figures of 0-197 in 32 overs, he only narrowly missed making it four double hundreds.

None of this means that Yasir was not a very good bowler. Yasir has been a godsend for Pakistan cricket; whatever little success we achieved in the dark decade of the 2010s was primarily his doing. He may not be Ashwin or Herath, but a lot of teams would have happily traded their best spinner for Yasir.

But what is disturbing is that half a decade and at least 15 kilos past his peak, Yasir is still our best option in Tests. And, not to put too fine a point on it, he isn’t very good anymore. More worryingly, there is little coming through the system. None of the red-ball spinners to get sustained runs recently — Nauman, Zulfiqar, Sajid Khan — have come close to impressing.

In the present World Test Championship (WTC) cycle, our spinners have been outbowled both home and away, both in conditions friendly to spinners and not. Not having a world-class spinner cost us WTC points at home against Australia and, recently, in Sri Lanka.

With five Tests coming up this winter against batting units (England, New Zealand) that — Joe Root aside — are hugely suspect against spin, a really good spinner is what stands between us and the WTC final.

To maximise our chances of booking that spot at Lord’s in 2023, the Outside Edge column would draft Shadab Khan into the side. The list of Pakistani cricketers more talented than Shadab is a very short one indeed.

It is true that most of his success has come in white ball cricket. But Shadab is no stranger to Tests. And his skillset — a relatively slow spinner with loop and turn alongside a proper googly — is more transferable to Test cricket than that of most other white ball stars, who tend to be of the quick, darting variety.

On day one, he would be the best fielder in the side. And his batting at 7 or 8, the spinner’s version of Faheem Ashraf, could be extraordinarily valuable for a team that relies on its lower order to score as many runs as the actual batsmen.

If his body allows the rigours of playing as an all-rounder in three formats, it may be time to give Shadab a go.

The writer is an assistant professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in the US.

He tweets @ahsanib

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 7th, 2022

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