When a legendary pace bowler like Dale Steyn announces on Twitter that he has seen the coming of the ‘new number one Test bowler’, you sit up and take notice. And, when a batsman of the calibre of Michael Vaughan too tweets praise for that bowler, then you are doubly sure that a ‘star’ has arrived. The new fast bowling sensation that Steyn, Vaughan and many others are in awe of is named Mohammad Abbas.
Abbas, not surprisingly, comes from the land of the Imran Khans, the Wasim Akrams and the Waqar Younises. He bowls at a lively pace — though he isn’t frighteningly express like Younis and Shoaib Akhtar — but has the ability to move the ball both ways in any conditions. In the recent series against the Australians, on the lifeless tracks of the United Arab Emirates, his 17 wickets came at less than 11 runs apiece.
Making his Test debut in the West Indies in April 2017, Abbas has played ten Tests till date and has claimed 59 wickets at the niggardly average of 15.64. As of October 2018, Abbas is ranked number three in ICC’s Test rankings. Remarkable, indeed, for someone so new to Test cricket!
Abbas’ is the typical, fairytale rags-to-riches story. He was born in a hamlet near Sambrial town, just across the India–Pakistan border, in the Sialkot district of Punjab, on 10 March, 1990. His family was quite poor, and Abbas spent his childhood first working as a welder and then at a tannery. In his teens, he moved to a law firm dealing with property matters, working there as a helper. While he was slogging it out, earning a meal or two for his family, he kept dreaming about playing cricket for Pakistan; a dream he knew would get his family out of the clutches of penury and hunger.
In whatever spare time he could find, Abbas would work on his bowling skills with a tennis or ‘tape’ ball. His single-mindedness and hard work paid off when he was called to represent Sialkot in an Under-19 match. But there was one hitch; only one spot was available in the playing eleven and there were two boys to pick from: Abbas and another player, who was the secretary’s son. The skipper, therefore, suggested a spin of the coin to decide who would play. Abbas, as luck would have it, won. He picked five wickets in that match and has never had to look back since.
It was, however, one thing being picked for district and provincial sides and quite another being called up to the national squad. Abbas made his first-class debut for Sialkot in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy in February 2009. It took him eight years of great bowling performances, around 300 first-class scalps and mental hardiness to be included in Pakistan’s Test squad for the Caribbean tour of 2017.
Despite his topping the bowling averages at the first-class level for several years, Pakistani selectors perceived him as a bowler who excelled on helpful, green wickets like the ones found at his home ground, the Khan Research Laboratories Complex. It was ironical therefore that he picked 17 Australian wickets on the unresponsive tracks of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, in two Tests, and helped Pakistan win a historic series.
Pakistan has always produced great fast bowlers and during the last decade, Abbas has had to contend with the likes of Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Arif, Umar Gul, Wahab Riaz, Rahat Ali Khan, Mohammad Irfan, Junaid Khan and many others who had already played for Pakistan at the highest levels and had performed well. Any ordinary mortal would have given up trying to get past these star bowlers, but Abbas wasn’t one to be easily discouraged. He kept performing in the hope that Pakistani selectors would one day take notice of his talent.
Following his debut against the West Indies, in which he claimed the wicket of Kraig Brathwaite with his second delivery in Tests, he played in a not too successful series against the Sri Lankans in September 2017. His country’s selectors were by then, however, convinced that Abbas was worth persevering with. In May and June 2018, he, therefore, repaid them for their trust by picking nine wickets in Ireland’s debut Test and then scalping eight England batsmen in the first Test, thus guiding Pakistan to comfortable victories in both matches. In the second of the two Tests against England, though, he wasn’t as successful, as England won the Test to draw the series. This was followed by the epoch-making two-Test series against Australia, in the UAE.
Pakistan’s star former off-spinner, Saqlain Mushtaq, while speaking to a TV channel said that Abbas was one of a kind. “Just imagine, in the UAE, there were neither clouds nor was the atmosphere heavy; the pitches were dead, with hardly any moisture in them. Even then Abbas moved the ball around both ways,” he said, adding tongue-in-cheek, “There were no soft drink bottle caps too, to help generate reverse swing!”
What’s so special about Abbas? With only 10 Tests and 59 wickets under his belt, why is the cricketing world looking at him in wonderment? A couple of reasons: He is deadly accurate and can move the ball either way — very, very late — on any surface. A measured run-up helps him get into a beautiful, chest-on delivery position at the crease. In the delivery stride, his short, front arm comes down like a piston, allowing his bowling arm to be a blur at the point of release. His accuracy and late swing come from the split second delay in release of the ball during which he puts in a lot of wrist and imparts under-spin to the ball.
Most of Abbas’ wickets come from batsmen playing down the wrong line. All his deliveries are pitched in the ‘corridor of uncertainty’, as Glenn McGrath would call it, and the ball moves only off the track; there is hardly any hint of early movement. Though, the late in-dipper is his stock ball, he also possesses the out-swinger and the ball that just holds its line. Like McGrath, he believes in wearing down the batsman mentally.
Abbas has taken to Test cricket as a duck takes to water. It is more than likely that he will also make it to the squad for the World Cup of 2019 to be played in England and Wales. It will be interesting to see how some of the world’s best batsmen face him, including Virat Kohli, under helpful conditions. If he does what he does best, in England, he will surely be a handful for most of them.
Abbas is a passionate follower of James Anderson, the legendary England quickie. After Pakistan beat England last May, Abbas walked up to Anderson and asked him where he needed to improve as a bowler. The latter gave him a few tips and then said, ‘Mate, you’ve just taken eight wickets and won a Test match for your country.” Patting him on his back, Anderson is said to have told him that he is one of the best in the business.
Mohammad Abbas is one reason why Pakistan should be playing more Test cricket. Despite the lack of system in its cricket a host of talented young batsmen are emerging out of Pakistan in recent years. If India can play against Pakistan in limited overs cricket tournaments and in other games like hockey, football etc, why can’t the two play Test matches, probably at neutral venues in the UAE and South Africa?
I am hoping to see an Abbas-Kohli clash, a true battle of wits, very soon. Probably at the World Cup!
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a mental toughness trainer.
Updated Date: Oct 24, 2018 14:54 PM