The unorthodoxy that is often associated with cricket teams hailing from the subcontinent is due to all the right reasons. From classical wristy batters — playing those extravagant drives on both sides of the wicket — to unconventional spin bowlers — with their mysterious never-before-seen bowling actions showcasing their tricks — subcontinent teams seem to have it all. Pakistan, in particular, is a team which has had a huge reliance on its bowler, more so than any other team over the past few years – and they didn’t let down, to be fair.

Pakistan has a rich history of breeding quality spinners, and the latest find is no exception. There were times in the past when the skilfulness of Saqlain Mushtaq, arguably the inventor of the ‘doosra’ – a delivery that people were unfamiliar with back in his era, would scare and stigmatize and haunt the touring sides for long. Few batters, if any, managed to pick his varieties convincingly. Abdul Qadir, widely regarded as the modern father of leg spin bowling , is another archetypal genius who would not miss a mention here. Mushtaq Ahmed, Danish Kaneria, and Intikhaab Alam were also among the names who have managed to earned high regard from the cricketing fraternity for their box of tricks.

Yasir Shah’s journey of fame began with a viral tweet from the former cricketing great, Shane Warne , lauding the skill-set of this electric leggie who seemed to have a classic leg spin action with a smooth hustling run-up, and tempting spin variations on the ball. What better sight for Shah than to be extolled by the man whom he grew up impersonating; one whom he has great admiration for, and had looked up to as a teen. Warne was spot on in his reckoning of this special talent.

Not many would have put their money on Yasir after his below-average World Cup appearance against arch-rivals, India, albeit on a surface that didn’t offer much assistance, to be honest. It was a high profile game and Yasir failed to impress anyone with his leg-spin display; the likes of Kohli, Rahane, and Sharma gave him a bit of a hammering on the fine batting strip. Many thought that day that Shah’s brief stint in limited-overs cricket was over and done with. However, that wasn’t to be the case. After Pakistan saw the back of its premier spin-ace Saeed Ajmal, after his bowling option deemed illegal, Yasir was reintroduced to the circuit as a potential replacement.

Shah made a stunning Test debut in 2014 against Australia in Dubai where he took no time in disturbing the furniture of Australia’s upfront warrior David Warner with a leggie that pitched way out of the off stump and came back sharply to uproot the middle stump – very much reminiscent of Warne’s classic. That scalp sort of summed up Shah’s class and calibre. He produced many glimpses of his heroics to come in that series.

The ability to throw six different deliveries in an over with varying pace and break has made Yasir Shah unplayable at times on spin-friendly surfaces; he has managed to use the combination of his deliveries to a lethal effect. His varieties include a traditional leggie, a top-spinner/flipper, googlies using the wrist and fingers, and a slider, which he seems to disguise very well. The swift and smooth action allows him to put less strain on his shoulders and more on his wrist with which he controls the pace and guile of his deliveries. His action is such that every ball that comes out of his hand seems to have an exciting flavour and a great deal of energy, which seem to translate his emotions. The momentum which he carries in his stride before delivering the ball drives him forward in his follow-through. We have already seen him taking superb catches in his follow-through.

Apart from his skill, Shah is also a ‘thinking’ cricketer, which helps a lot. That is, he works a lot on his game and variations. It appears that he knows exactly how to get batsmen out, is quick to decipher any flaws in the batsmen’s game, and knows the art of getting under their skin. After England’s humiliating defeat against Pakistan at Lords this year, and their lack of spin acquaintance being brutally exposed by Yasir on a surface that offered minimal help, England came up with a strategy to not play any cross-batted shots against Yasir at Old Trafford and Edgbaston, whose wickets were supposed to provide more help to the leg-spinner. Jonny Bairstow, who was cruising along looking to build a solid lead, managed to avoid Shah’s threat by playing him with a much straighter bat. As a response, Yasir started bowling outside off-stump with a bit more flight and guile, inviting the drive. Bairstow then had to expand his reach, which created a gap between his bat and pad. Yasir kept drawing him forward until he was ready for the final punch. And then, he dragged one shorter and faster. Bairstow, being a strong backfoot player, couldn’t resist the temptation of putting it away, ended up playing a cross-bat shot, and perished in the process.

Another distinctive virtue of Shah’s is the impish grin on his face that never ceases to disappear, and is as wicked as his magical leggies. His unruffled approach allows him to keep his calm even in the worst scenarios; Yasir never forgets to wear his smile even when is not having the best day. He seems to enjoy his game more than anyone, living and enjoying his dream – each and every moment in the present – to the extreme. 

It is amazing to see the massive success that Yasir has accumulated since his debut: he recently became the joint fastest bowler to take 100 wickets in test cricket. Shah’s remarkable run reached its crescendo this year when he climbed to the top spot in the ICC bowling rankings, surpassing England’s James Anderson. For now, I can safely speculate that much of the magic of the best leg-spinner in the world is yet to unfold.