By Taha Hashim
The sun has swallowed Abu Dhabi, and in return offered a pitch that resembles something close to a barren post-apocalyptic cricketing landscape. Stood on the lifeless strip is Adil Rashid. Around him, the crowd has gone up with applause, supported by his England teammates. Yet, Rashid has not defied this barren, soul-sapping surface disguised as a Test Match wicket. The applause is for Pakistan’s Asad Shafiq, who just moments earlier sweeps a flighted leg-break from Rashid to the fine leg boundary.
Rashid’s fellow Yorkshireman, Jonny Bairstow, gives chase, but the ball trickles ever so slowly. Bairstow keeps chasing. Rashid silently hopes for some respite. He won’t get any. The bruised and bludgeoned ball gently kisses the boundary rope and halts to a stop. Shafiq has his eighth test-hundred. At the other end, Shoaib Malik, making his return from Test wilderness, stands tall as a double-centurion, his white bandana an iconic symbol of a terrific knock.
Rashid has bowled 31.1 overs for 147 runs, with no maidens to his name, let alone a wicket. Maybe he wants the sun to swallow him too. Fifteen overs later, Rashid walks off a record-breaker. His figures read: 34-0-163-0. They are the worst bowling figures for a Test debutant. Ever.
Leg spin bowling has never been an art too closely associated with English cricket. It is the most testing, most technical, and most ballsy cricketing craft. A style of bowling that may often leave the bowler more bewildered than the batsman. The subtlety of the wrist can result in the ball turning square, or tossed ten miles into the air. It can be majestic or plain dreadful. It is a box full of contradictions. One that England have always tried to keep closed.
Other nations have flourished. Search the names of the great Pakistani leg spinners; Abdul Qadir, Mushtaq Ahmed, and the new age hero in Yasir Shah, and you will be treated to a delightful assortment of fizzing leg spinners, complemented by outrageous googlies, deliveries that turn into the right-handed batsman, rather than the other way. Australia is another nation blessed with such talent, with the iconic names of O’Reilly, Grimmett, Benaud, the often overlooked MacGill, and of course the greatest of them all, Warne. Bring all these names together, and the common ground lies in the ability to take wickets. Leg spinners attack, and most importantly, win you matches.
Rashid returns three days later, after Alastair Cook plays the longest test innings by an Englishman. He returns, but things don’t look like they have changed. It is Rashid’s second over. He bowls five deliveries. All dots. Rashid is so close. Not to a wicket, but his first maiden. Mohammed Hafeez has other plans. It is back over Rashid’s head. Six. Rashid walks off for lunch. It probably doesn’t taste too great.
To watch Rashid isn’t about just watching leg spin bowling at both its worst and best. It is about witnessing an endangered species. It is about what Rashid could do to English cricket. It is about the possibility of seeing leg spin revitalised in a nation where spin stocks have never been so low.
Rashid returns. He’s back in the mix. Yet for the first time in the match, it is all for the right reasons. Hafeez risks a quick single off Rashid, but meets the force that is Ben Stokes’ arm. There is only one winner. Hafeez walks off, but Pakistan recover. The match heads for a draw. England know it as well. Suddenly, Younis Khan, the great Younis Khan, who is now Pakistan’s highest Test run-getter, plays the shot of an eager debutant.
After 38.2 overs, a maiden test wicket arrives. It is disbelief, it is joy, it is sheer relief. Asad Shafiq returns to the crease, and Rashid could be forgiven for hanging up his boots for the day and settling for his one scalp. But it is time for the ultimate joy of the avid cricket watcher. An exhibition of leg-spin bowling. Shafiq lasts ten balls, and Rashid has him caught behind on the eleventh. Babar goes, as Rashid bowls one that doesn’t turn. Sarfraz follows him. Rashid finishes things off by having Imran Khan caught at slip.
Adil Rashid walks off a record-breaker. His figures read: 18.5-3-64-5. He is the first English leg spinner to take a five wicket haul in over fifty years. England may not go on to win, but their leggie gets them inches from the finishing line.
He will give you the good and the bad, but that is the beauty of the leg spinner. You never really know what you’re going to get.
Photograph: JJ Hall via Wikimedia Commons