Were cricket to survive in only one country on earth, it would be best for the sport if that country were Pakistan. It would be nicer if a composite XI survived, graced with Indian batsmanship, Australian and West Indian fast bowling, and English wicketkeeping. But if one country combines all that is best about the game – irrespective of the worst, such as on their no-balling tour of England in 2010 – then it has to be Pakistan.
In no country since the Second World War has leg-spin played such a large part as it has in Pakistan – real leg-spin, with the ball ripping across the right-hander, mixed with the googly ripping back to bamboozle. India produced Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Anil Kumble, but they were more over-spinners or top-spinners, brought up on the matting of southern India to make the ball bounce. Australia were also blessed post-war but a generation passed after Richie Benaud before Shane Warne emerged alongside Stuart MacGill.
If cricket is played in England for the rest of this millennium, it is still unimaginable that they would go into a Test – into any match – with two wrist-spinners. The moon is almost blue when they pick one.
Yet Pakistan selected two for Old Trafford, and they have done so regularly before, as when Intikhab Alam and Mushtaq Mohammad played together in the 1970s. Half of Pakistan’s top half-dozen Test wicket-takers have been leg-spinners: arguably the finest of them all, Abdul Qadir, plus Danish Kaneria and Yasir Shah, with Mushtaq Ahmed not far behind.
As they began their run-up to the bowling crease, nobody could say what would happen next because theirs is the most unpredictable form of bowling, the opposite of finger-spin where repetition is the aim. For certain, the two best ways to take a wicket out of nowhere – to dismiss batsmen well-set – are extreme pace and extreme spin. Yasir, more patient on day three than two, settled down with some fizzing and leaping leg-breaks which Mohammad Rizwan showed Jos Buttler how to take, by turning his hips and getting his body out of the way so that both hands could be raised as high as required.
Yasir, like Warne, has remarkably strong legs and thighs which drive him through the crease, so his follow-through is almost as long as a pace bowler’s.
Given such pace on the ball, and so many revolutions per minute – well over 2,000 – England’s batsmen will not be often running down the pitch to counteract Yasir in the rest of this series, or Shadab Khan either. Natural variation, which did for Buttler’s off stump, and novelty are the spinner’s best friends, and Yasir’s record is best in the first Test of a series for average and economy, but England’s batsmen will have to do more than block and wait.
A clue was provided, not by their specialist batsmen, but by Stuart Broad and James Anderson: they attacked with a mow to leg and a reverse-sweep, and ran between wickets as Pakistan had done but none of England’s top-order batsmen tried, and soon the steam began to emerge from Yasir’s ears, especially when Shadab dropped Broad at deep square leg.
Like Qadir, Yasir has a fast bowler’s temperament. The state of wrist-spin in England can be easily summarised. It is not extinct but the shoots of recovery are barely visible. There are white-ball leg-spinners who fire the ball in at a batsman’s legs and give him no room to slog, but real wrist-spinners are limited to Mason Crane, who had his single Test in Sydney to little effect, Matt Parkinson of Lancashire who is injured, but who bowled Ben Stokes through the gate in the first warm-up game of this summer before that injury; Matt Critchley of Derbyshire, who bats more than he bowls; and the Australian bowling for Middlesex, Nathan Sowter.
The prospects for the rest of this millennium do not currently look much brighter.
Whether it is the county championship or Bob Willis Trophy, four pace bowlers bang on all day until they are tired and only then is a spinner tried. Uniformity or orthodoxy, if not monotony, has long been the traditional style.
The only wrist-spinner to take 100 Test wickets for England was Doug Wright, either side of the Second World War: 108 wickets at 39 runs each. How can we encourage youngsters and return to the 1950s when county spinners – both finger-spinners and wrist-spinners – bowled half the overs and took half the wickets, which is surely how it should be?
Abolish any second ball, instead of rewarding pace bowlers for failing to take 10 wickets. Anything has to be better than bowling off-spin from both ends, trying to contain not attack, as England did while waiting for the second new ball on the second afternoon of the first Test against Pakistan, and lost control.