The Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), formerly referred to as the Kahuta Research Laborataries, is a name that would be far more familiar to followers of Indo-Pak politics and security experts than any casual cricket fan, but it’s a name that signifies its own unique brand for those within Pakistan cricket. Over the past fifteen years, pitches in Pakistan's domestic cricket have gone from being bone dry to greener than a rally on 20 April, and no city has suffered more from this affliction than Rawalpindi. And even in Rawalpindi, KRL’s home ground (unimaginatively named the KRL Ground), stands alone as being particularly extraordinary in this regard. Over the past two seasons the average runs per wicket at the KRL ground in First Class cricket has been just 17.89!
In fact, the KRL team has come to be seen as a microcosm of the state of domestic cricket and what ails it. Last season no KRL batsman averaged over 30 in the First-Class game, yet they still finished 8th (out of 16 teams) in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. The season before that they finished 5th, despite only two batsmen averaging more than 35. This season they are assured of advancing to the Super Eight stage of the tournament, despite just two centuries from their batsmen after six matchdays. The reason they can continue to be successful is that for over a decade now KRL has had seam friendly conditions and an assembly line of bowlers who can exploit that. Among the names that have represented the team in the past decade are the likes of Shoaib Akhtar, Shabbir Ahmed, Mohammad Irfan, Rahat Ali, Junaid Khan and Yasir Arafat. Even this season KRL have a new ball pair of Sadaf Hussain (374 First Class wickets at an average of 18.5) and Sameen Gul (76 wickets at 15.4) to call upon.
The problem with extraordinary numbers is that when everyone has them then they lose their context. For the whole of this decade Sadaf Hussain has been considered a “conditions” bowler who succeeds either with the new ball or on green wickets and has question marks over his stamina and fitness – that’s the story of every KRL pacer over the past eight years: their numbers are minimized or ignored because of the how KRL is seen within the domestic game.
But now those biases and assumptions might need to be put to rest.
In the summer of 2015 the 25-year old Mohammad Abbas was signed by KRL to be Sadaf Hussain’s new ball partner. At that stage Abbas had taken 112 First Class wickets at an average over 30. Despite showing glimpses, especially in the season immediately before joining KRL, he was still very much seen as someone who could be the support act to Sadaf Hussain when he joined the department. Over the next two seasons he flipped the script.
In the 2015/16 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy Abbas finished with 61 wickets at 16.8 – no other bowler took more than 50 wickets that season. Sadaf, the bowler he was supposed to be the supporting act of, finished with 36. In normal circumstances a pace bowler in his mid-20s topping the charts as Abbas did would have led to calls for his selection for the national team. But his achievements were seen through the prism of him being a KRL bowler. To add to that, Pakistan already had Sohail Khan and Imran Khan fighting for the spot of the right arm medium pacer in the national squad. The question marks over the two of them were over their fitness and their ability in unfriendly conditions – those were the doubts over Abbas too, as with every other KRL bowler. Thus, despite his remarkable numbers that season, things changed little for Abbas.
So, Abbas doubled down. The following season he took 71 wickets at an average under 13! Thus, over the course of the two seasons leading up to Pakistan’s series in the West Indies in 2017 Mohammad Abbas took 132 wickets in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, no other bowler took even 90. Medium pacers in the domestic game were seen as interchangeable, but Abbas was now separating himself from the peloton.
Domestic batsmen who have faced him over the course of this decade talk about how much he has improved over the past five years: he used to be the stereotypical medium pacer but he distinguished himself, first with an increase in accuracy and patience, and then once he mastered the art of the wobbly seam he truly stepped up a notch.
But there were still question marks. And they all stemmed from the problems with the domestic game.
The green wickets that populate the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy mean that most matches don’t last into the final day, even in the four-day format. Last season, for instance, only eight of the 69 QeA Trophy matches ended in a draw. The result of which is that any pace bowler who comes up to the national team has question marks about his stamina. Imran Khan and Sohail Khan (at least to begin with) had better numbers than the likes of Rahat Ali, Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz – yet the latter trio were been preferred more often, because with them the captain and the coach are assured that they will bowl with the same intensity and skill at 5 pm as they would at 11 am; something that wasn’t the case with the two right arm pacers. Those were the questions asked of Abbas too, but he has answered them emphatically. Not since Mohammad Asif have Pakistan had a pace bowler who could play the dual role of containing the batsmen as well as someone who could pick wickets as consistently as their leading spinners.
Not only has Abbas bowled more than any other pacer in this decade – whether that’s in Asia or outside – he has continued to be, by far, Pakistan’s most economical pacer, while also being a significantly better wicket taker. Unlike the two right arm medium pacers before him he doesn’t leak the runs in the latter part of his spells, and as a wicket-taker there is no comparison between him and all others that have played for Pakistan this decade. Considering that seven of his ten Tests thus far have been in the UAE or the West Indies – two countries where Pakistan would expect their spinners to bowl most of the overs and take the majority of the wickets – his numbers truly are extraordinary: Abbas has now taken 20 wickets in his four Tests in the UAE at 16.05. None of the other six Pakistani pacers who have taken 10+ wickets in the Emirates average under 32.
So perhaps it’s time to shelve those assumptions regarding KRL bowlers. Or perhaps, as compared to the rest of his compatriots, Abbas is the exception that proves the rule. Regardless of where you stand on that front, one thing is obvious: not since the summer of 2010 have Pakistan been more wary of jinxing a fast bowler.