“An Emirati immigration officer once looked at my passport and said, 'Why do you have Messi’s photo here?'”
“I had to show him my identification mark and cricket photos to convince him otherwise,” Yasir Shah, Pakistan's fresh spin-talent, tells Dawn.com with a chuckle.
Though not an international superstar yet, the easy-going Yasir, who made an impressive Test debut against Australia just weeks ago, has already created an identity for himself in cricketing circles. And if his coaches are to be believed, the 28-year-old can go on to become one of Pakistan's leading bowlers in the years to come.
“He has all the variations that a leg-spinner requires. We just need to improve on the accuracy,” says Pakistan’s spin bowling coach Mushtaq Ahmed.
Despite growing up in an era punctuated with two local leg-break heroes, Yasir credits Australian legend Shane Warne for inspiring him to take up the game.
“It was during the Carlton and United series of 1996-97. I would wake up in the middle of the night for every Pakistan match and by the end of the series I knew I wanted to be a cricketer.”
Yasir Shah 'wants to be like Jonty Rhodes in the field.' —Photo by AFP
At ten years of age, Yasir began copying Warne’s action at the grounds of his local cricket club in Swabi – a north-western district better known for producing national volleyball champions than cricketers. “I used to bowl from half-way down the pitch… the ball wouldn’t reach the wicket otherwise,” he says, with his trademark infectious laugh.
It all turned serious for him when his father noticed that an irregularity in his visits to the mosque coincided with his growing interest for cricket. Only after some persuasion from his cousin and plenty of hard work and results on the field, was Mr Shah was convinced of his son’s abilities.
As his game improved, Yasir realised that he would need to play with and against better cricketers in order to reach the next level in his career. “I played in Swabi for almost two years before my cousin took me to a cricket academy in Peshawar, where I spent another couple of years before finally getting the call for Pakistan’s U15 side.”
An ill-timed finger injury kept him out of the U15 tour but a run of impressive performances at home led to his selection in the U19 side, which also included future international cricketers Salman Butt and Umar Gul, for a home series against Sri Lanka.
“All this time, I kept practising in Peshawar, where I received a lot of support from the seniors (moral and in the form of kits), who told me I would play Test cricket for Pakistan one day.”
The cousin responsible for the initial push towards professional cricket had moved to England and would send Yasir bowling and coaching videos of Warne from his time in the English county season. “I would listen to his tips and instructions in those videos and tried to follow the way he bowled… everything from basic leg-spin to flippers and top-spin.”
With such a degree of veneration, it was only natural that Yasir’s action was modelled after Warne’s. “I had a similar start, run-up and brought my hand from the top – just like Warne.”
This, however, changed once Yasir was sent to the National Cricket Academy (NCA) under the coaching of former pacer Aaqib Javed.
“He felt I wasn’t pivoting correctly and my leg wasn’t landing properly with my old action, so he asked me to modify it.”
According to Aaqib, the modification was made in order to maximise the turn and control. Speaking with Dawn.com, he explained the techniques for improving a leg-break bowler: increasing spin, stabilising the body during delivery and generating more pace.
“The more a bowler is in control of his body while delivering the ball, the better the delivery. So our aim was to improve his control, which led to making a few modifications to his original action.”
Yasir is also quick to admit that his googly isn’t good enough.
“I am able to bowl googlies now but I still have a long way to go before I reach the same level as (Abdul) Qadir bhai or Mushi bhai.”
His limitations did not affect his very consistent climb up the domestic circuit though. He was signed up by Pakistan Customs, where he did well enough (34 wickets in seven matches) to get noticed by national selectors prior to the home series against Zimbabwe in 2008. Despite doing well in the side matches, he failed to find a place in the national squad, but instead hopped on a plane with the touring Pakistan academy side.
An impressive tour meant that he was finally picked to represent Pakistan in the ODI series against Zimbabwe in 2011. Unable to make an impression with his bowling, Yasir left a mark on the Pakistan fans with his passionate, non-Pakistani fielding.
“If you don’t show energy on the ground or look involved, it would seem like your mind is elsewhere. This is something you strive for all your life, to play for Pakistan. So once you get your chance you must put in all the effort you can.”
Beyond the passion, Yasir actually strives to be a very good fielder – “just like Jonty Rhodes,” if you believe him. Also, unlike several Pakistani bowlers, Yasir has shown some skill with the bat. He’s quick to mention his mid-twenties batting average in first-class cricket.
“Playing domestic cricket for 12 years helped me develop as a professional cricketer immensely. Five of my first-class (SNGPL) teammates play for Pakistan so it helped me prepare for international cricket,” he says adding that when the Test call finally came, he was beside himself with excitement. It showed. His Test cap seemed to have been glued on to his head.
With a sheepish laugh, Yasir reveals: “When you work so hard to achieve something, your love for it deepens even more.”
Growing up in a generation where it could have been much easier, and common, to emulate fast bowlers, the 28-year-old from the land of conjoined rivers has managed to finally make his place in the side. According to the local experts, he is now vying for the spot of the most popular man in the team and perhaps even the country: Shahid Afridi.
Whether he has the tricks to nudge the veteran Afridi from the ODI team, it is too early to call.
At the moment, Yasir knows he has a long way to go before he can make a name for himself.