Abdul Qadir‘s first international wicket in Australia is a gift for all, a googly as sweet as can be. It would come to be seen as sweet relief too because he was bowling it to a right-hander, from over the wicket. That Australian XI had five left-handers in the top seven and through the series Qadir chose to go at them from around the wicket. So the googly – his baby, his life and joy – was somewhat neutered before he had even bowled it. They swept him relentlessly from the angle.
Kim Hughes was that first wicket, done up good and proper attempting a cover drive. Qadir’s last but one international wicket in Australia was also a googly; unlike Hughes, the pinch-hitting Craig McDermott was bowled on the back foot, but like Hughes he too was clueless about the true intent of the delivery.
Look them up. They bookend Rob Moody’s – who else? – video on YouTube of Qadir’s wickets in Australia. Of the 11 Test wickets in that video, all from the only Test series he played there, in 1983-84, five were wrong’uns and one a straighter, quicker one that may or may not have been a flipper – Allan Border certainly didn’t know. Qadir didn’t have a great series, his style cramped by a thin attack around him and by being unused to the surfaces he was playing on. But nobody forgot him.
There were 15 more wickets in the ODI tri-series that season and plenty were wrong’uns. Some were superfine, like when Jeffrey Dujon skipped out to one that looked like it may drop outside off stump but instead drifted in and dropped somewhere between off and middle in front of him, and spun not between his inside edge and pad but past the outside of his front thigh. This was not a googly so much as a Muttiah Muralitharan offbreak nine years before Muttiah Muralitharan. It missed leg stump by a foot, though not Wasim Bari’s gloves, as he completed the stumping.
Mushtaq Ahmed would bounce into Australia in not dissimilar style, just more sober of hair and mood. In 1995-96, he worked out Australian surfaces better than Qadir, though, of course, it helped having Wasim and Waqar thunder around him. But the googly was as singular. Recall its torment of Greg Blewett, wunderkind of the day, who twice responded to it as if during a maths exam he had been asked a question about Faiz’s poetry: WTF doesn’t begin to capture it. Steve Waugh’s dismissal in the second innings in Sydney, meanwhile, was Qadir-Hughes Mark II. Even Danish Kaneria, 25 more Test wickets than Qadir and 76 more than Mushtaq, but with incalculably less aura than either, had a googly that had Richie Benaud purring in 2004-05.
In other words, the Pakistani googly holds a place of some value in the Australian cricket canon, and given Pakistan’s modern record there, there isn’t much else challenging it. Which brings us to Yasir Shah, imminently to introduce himself to Australian crowds, but to whom the googly is not so attached.
He does – or at least did – have one, as well as an idea over its best deployment. Last year in Dhaka, he bowled four wide-ish legbreaks to Mushfiqur Rahim before slipping in a fizzing wrong’un that bowled him. Since then, though, nothing sticks in the mind. The most memorable Pakistani googlies actually have come from the back of Azhar Ali’s hand.
Not that it has held Yasir back. At first it was even kind of refreshing how little he used it, and that it wasn’t the crutch it became for Mushtaq and Kaneria: they bowled the googly into the ground, in the process stripping it of whatever aura Qadir had given it. If they began by showing it off – Kaneria’s first ball in Test cricket was a wrong’un – by the end it was something they could not wean themselves off; in that overuse, it went the way of Saqlain Mushtaq’s doosra.
Yasir is not that Pakistani legspinner. Little marks him as a linear inheritor of that line. If you see him side-on in his gather as he arrives at the crease, he doesn’t even look like a spinner. Mid-leap, he could be a fast bowler. He bowls at a higher pace, at which even insignificant turn, or no turn, can be lethal. That hurry, on the kind of slow wickets he has predominantly played on, is what has helped him. Ally that to his control, especially in his first year, and it is clear from the nature of his dismissals how he differs to Qadir and Kaneria especially: nearly 45% of his wickets are lbw or bowled. In their first 20 Tests, the corresponding figures for Qadir and Kaneria were around 36% and 25% respectively. Mushtaq is close, with 40%, but even accounting for a DRS-enabled skew, the gap speaks of a distinct mode of attack.
Yasir can spin them sexy, especially when bowling to left-handers from around the wicket. But essentially, in how straight he is and the lack of big turn, he could almost be a shorter, stockier, less nerdy Anil Kumble. Of the great legspinners of the modern age – Qadir, Mushtaq, Kaneria, Warne, MacGill – Kumble is closest to Yasir in the percentage of lbws and bowleds after 20 Tests (41.4%).
What, then, of the next three weeks? Watch any Qadir and Mushtaq montage from Australia and it is hard to dispute the latter’s contention that Yasir will need a fair bag of tricks – topspinners, wrong’uns, flippers, overspinners. Australian batsmen did not drive Mushtaq with the usual conviction because of the lingering threat of that googly; yet to go on the back foot to cut was to invite danger anew.
Perhaps bowling a little slower than usual might help, although in truth, variation of speed will help more. That is the truth of Kumble’s belated bloom in Australia, in which his first three Tests yielded five wickets and the last seven 44. Kumble had the benefit of a Terry Jenner intervention on the 2003-04 tour, Jenner advising him, in effect, to slow it up, or at least not be as mono-paced as he had been. The benefits were immediate, not least in a masterly dismantling of Ricky Ponting in Sydney: four mid-80kph legbreaks the set-up for the killer, non-turning 100kph-bullet.
Googly addict: Kaneria might have twice as many Test wickets in Australia as Qadir, but he was guilty of overdoing the wrong’un Ryan Pierse / © Getty Images
This year has not been easy for Yasir. He has the wickets, even the performances, but some of the sheen has come off. There have been stretches where it has not been obvious where his next wicket might come from, as if his ambitions have been hemmed in by a lifetime of learning by rote and an inability to think on his feet. He took plenty against West Indies, an exceptional feat on wickets that were slow even by UAE standards. But committed as he was, you couldn’t miss the fatigue about him, most obviously in how often he missed his lengths.
Neither should that be a surprise. Only Nathan Lyon has bowled more overs since Yasir’s debut – 1065.4 to Yasir’s 1057.5 and that too in seven more Tests. This is classic Misbah, using his lead spinner to shock-and-awe batsmen as well as to dull-and-bore them in case the first approach doesn’t work. He doesn’t have much choice, given he has no allrounder and his pace attack continues to perform better in the mind’s fantasy than necessarily on the field. And so the burden is high on Yasir, not as heavy as it was for Qadir in 1983-84 but not as light either as it was for Mushtaq in 1995-96. For the last few months he has not had the benefit of Mushtaq’s tutelage either – a key presence in and around Pakistan’s set-up since Yasir’s debut. If nothing else, he could at least have continued working with Yasir on improving that googly.
Although, come to think of it, maybe it isn’t the googly he needs as much as the presence to be able to do without it. Because we all know which Australian never had a great wrong’un right? His great frenemy Kevin Pietersen wrote the best line about that: “Warnie being Warnie, all he did was replace the missing googly with bullshit.”