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Cricket: Fortunes may turn on leg spinners

New Zealand's Todd Astle. Photo / AP
New Zealand's Todd Astle. Photo / AP

The leg spinning contest between Yasir Shah and Todd Astle shapes as a key duel in the two-test series between New Zealand and Pakistan starting on Thursday in Christchurch.

Both 30-year-olds are likely to shoulder the majority of the spin bowling burden for their XIs when the sides meet at Hagley Oval.

No play was possible between New Zealand A and the tourists in Nelson yesterday in which each was expected to feature. The proof will largely be reserved for the test, regardless of what happens today.

Astle faces a daunting task, coming into the Black Caps after a four-year hiatus to play his second test. Yasir has featured in 19 matches since debuting against Australia two years ago. Only one bowler, England's George Lohmann in 16 tests, was faster to 100 wickets.

Yasir reached the mark in his 17th test against the West Indies in Dubai last month. He has 116 dismissals at 27.04 with a strike rate of 54. To put that in context, Shane Warne, the player Yasir modelled himself on via youtube videos, took 708 test wickets at 25.41 with a strike rate of 57.4.

Astle has one wicket from the 31 overs and conceded 97 runs in the victory over Sri Lanka at Colombo in November 2012.

However, his 2016-17 resume is strong, with 14 first-class wickets from three matches at 18.07; 11 of those came at Hagley Oval. He also made his highest first-class score of 195 at the venue against Northern Districts last month, as part of a 44.50 average this season.

The Christchurch ground, contrary to popular belief, has been a haven for spinners of late.

A total of 30 wickets have fallen across two Plunket Shield matches in that fashion, including 24 between Canterbury and Central Districts.

Groundsman Rupert Bool told Fairfax he expected the pitch to be "more traditional New Zealand conditions" and the last first-class match was "a bit of an anomaly".

He tipped the wicket to resemble the one used for the ground's debut in the 2014 Boxing Day test between New Zealand and Sri Lanka, when pace bowlers shared the majority of the spoils.

It is also the earliest Christchurch has hosted a test. In 1995 and 2006 they began in December.

Astle has one other potential advantage over Yasir.

A leg spinner is preferable for taking the ball away from right-handed batsmen. Pakistan used five right-handers in their top six against the West Indies recently and are expected to do the same in New Zealand.

In contrast, with the selection of Jeet Raval and Henry Nicholls, New Zealand's top six will likely feature four left-handers with Tom Latham and Jimmy Neesham expected to supplement the right-handed 3-4 punch of Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor. However, that will hardly intimidate Yasir.

As the new No 1-ranked test bowler in July, he ripped through England at Lord's to earn match figures of 10 for 141 in his first test outside Asia on a relatively tame pitch. The revolutions and variations generated via his wrist negated that.

It proved leg spinners can be men for all seasons and conditions.

He's now world No 6 but has failed to take a wicket in just three innings out of 37 in his career.

New Zealand already know his power, too. He was the top wicket-taker with 15 at 33.53 in their 2014 drawn series in the United Arab Emirates.

With the difficulties the Black Caps endured against Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in the recent 3-0 series defeat to India, they can't afford to take their eye off the ball or his fingers and wrist for a moment.

- NZ Herald

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