“If you did not have a spinner better than Yasir (there aren’t many in contemporary cricket), the only way to get the better of Pakistan at UAE was to get two, maybe three spinners. If you needed to sacrifice a fast bowler for that, then so be it”

Pakistan’s invincibility in UAE had much to do with their two spinners. Had they played together, no side would have stood a chance against Saeed Ajmal and Yasir Shah. Unfortunately, they were separated by a season, which meant every touring side was spared.

But even in isolation, they have been ridiculously effective. Yasir (116 wickets at 24.54 in UAE) and Ajmal (67 at 26.46) have ensured Pakistan stayed unbeaten at their adopted fortress. When Sri Lanka beat them last winter, they dismissed it as one-off.

They should not have. While Yasir was at his peak (16 wickets at 25.12), Rangana Herath (16 at 17.31) did better. And Dilruwan Perera (12 at 25.67) took four wickets fewer, but his average was the same as Yasir’s. A close look-up at the bowling averages will show how Sri Lanka outdid Pakistan:


Pakistan vs Sri Lanka, 2017-18
  W Ave SR % B % W
Yasir Shah 16 25.13 56.6
Haris Sohail 5 18.60 39.6
Combined 21 23.57 52.6 45% 44%
Other bowlers 18 34.50 74.3
Total (Pakistan) 39 28.62 62.6
  W Ave SR % B % W
Rangana Herath 16 17.31 40.1
Dilruwan Perera 12 25.67 53.5
Combined 28 20.89 45.9 55% 57%
Other bowlers 12 36.25 88.5
Total (Sri Lanka) 40 25.50 58.7

Between them, the Sri Lankan pair did an outstanding job – but more importantly, they bowled 55% of the balls for Sri Lanka (and accounted for 57% of the wickets). The two Pakistani spinners bowled 45%. The difference was not enormous, but then, Sri Lanka won the two Tests by 68 runs and 21 runs.

Sri Lanka’s strategy, thus, was two-step:

  1. Identify at least two quality spinners
  2. Ensure they did the bulk of the bowling

If you did not have a spinner better than Yasir (there aren’t many in contemporary cricket), the only way to get the better of Pakistan at UAE was to get two, maybe three spinners. If you needed to sacrifice a fast bowler for that, then so be it.

Also read: From a pacer to spinner, Ajaz Patel announces himself in Test cricket

Pakistan were challenged by Australia just before the New Zealand series. A depleted Australia lost a Test and saved the other, but they had managed to negate Yasir (8 wickets at 37). Bilal Asif (9 at 18 apiece) was the surprise in a series dominated by Mohammad Abbas (17 wickets at 11).

No fast bowler had ever taken as many wickets in a series in UAE, let alone at an average that ridiculous. It was unfair to expect Abbas would replicate an effort this herculean against New Zealand. He failed, his 2 Tests fetching only an expensive wicket apiece.

The second Test at Dubai was an aberration, for Yasir won it virtually on his own:

Pakistan vs New Zealand, 2nd Test, Dubai
W Ave SR
Yasir Shah 14 13.14 24.6
Other bowlers (across teams) 9 68.89 172.0
Total 23 34.96 82.3

Pakistan won the Test easily, but this was a lifetime performance – even by the standards of the man who just became the quickest to 200 Test wickets. That is something special, an individual performance of such quality that not many teams would have been able to counter.

New Zealand lost the Test when they were bowled out for 90 after Haris Sohail and Babar Azam slammed hundreds. Ross Taylor’s 82 merely delayed the inevitable.

Yasir’s performance undid New Zealand’s strategy of out-spinning Pakistan. But they came out on top in the other two Tests, at Abu Dhabi.

How did they achieve this? Once again Yasir took most wickets (15 at 25.12), but New Zealand handed out a Test cap to a 30-year-old left-arm spinner called Ajaz Patel. And when Ish Sodhi failed at Dubai after doing well at Abu Dhabi, they drafted in the uncapped William Somerville, an off-spinner of 34.

In the first two Tests, they left out Tim Southee, for they knew that two fast bowlers might be redundant on these pitches. They went for Colin de Grandhomme instead to partner Trent Boult. Not before the third Test did Southee get a chance.

Pakistan vs New Zealand, 2017-18, 1st and 3rd Tests
  W Ave SR % B % W
Yasir Shah 15 24.53 53.4 34% 37%
Other bowlers 22 28.45 71.7
Total (Pakistan) 37 26.86 64.3
  W Ave SR % B % W
Ajaz Patel 12 22.08 48.4
William Somerville 7 18.14 48.0
Ish Sodhi 3 26.00 44.0
Combined 22 21.36 47.7 52% 54%
Other bowlers 16 24.69 59.4
Total (New Zealand) 38 22.76 52.6



  1. Pakistan also used Bilal as their second spinner – but he could not live up to expectations. Six wickets at 34 apiece were not enough to put him in the same bracket as the other three.
  2. Even if one removes Sodhi, Patel and Somerville bowled 46% of all overs between them for 45% of the wickets. The combined average improved to 20.63 in that case.

Perhaps Pakistan should have played that second specialist spinner, after all. Unfortunately, neither Abdur Rehman nor Zulfiqar Babar could live up to the challenge of evolving as a partner for Yasir. Shadab Khan might have had an ordinary start, but he is yet to play in UAE. Perhaps getting Yasir and Shadab together is the way out.

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