He seems to have slipped under the radar until recently, but now, after demolishing Australia in the second Test, the whole world is realising and appreciating the supreme skill of Pakistan seam bowler Mohammad Abbas.
Despite only enjoying a short Test career so far, Abbas’s stats are astonishing. In ten Tests, he has taken 59 wickets at 15.64. His first-class stats are not bad either, with 394 wickets at 19.83. His Test average is currently, for bowlers to manage 50 wickets in Test cricket, the fourth best of all time. The last man to boast an average after taking so many wickets with George Lohmann, well over a century ago. What’s more, according to CricViz, his strike rate of 38 is the best of any Test bowler to have taken over 50 wickets since World War Two.
As a result, Abbas is already being talked about as the best red-ball bowler on the planet. His figures so far are revealing enough but what is perhaps more impressive are how and where he has taken his wickets. He has prospered in favourable bowling conditions in England and Ireland but his record in the UAE, often considered to be a graveyard for fast bowlers, is perhaps what stands him out.
It is an extremely promising sign because it proves that Abbas does not need conditions to be in his favour for him to cause a considerable threat. According to CricViz, in England and South Africa, two countries favourable to seamers, the average movement across 18 months for all such bowlers is 1° of swing and 0.7° of seam. Yet, Abbas has only played two of his Tests in England (10 wickets at 14.2) but has featured seven times in the UAE and the West Indies, where the average movement for all seamers in that time is 0.8° of swing and 0.5° of seam, and has taken 40 wickets at a superb average of 16.76.
The numbers are there for everyone to see but what makes Abbas so good? He is not particularly quick, averaging between 125-135kph, and does not produce extravagant bounce with his deliveries. What’s more, he achieves barely any lateral movement, even Mitchell Marsh, who is not used a lot by Australia, found more swing. However, what he does possess is relentless accuracy that forces batsmen to play more often than not.
Certainly, in Dubai against Australia, Abbas was at his accurate best. According to CricViz’s Wicket Probability model, his average delivery had a 2.48% chance of taking a wicket – better than any other bowler in the Test. He was always testing the skill of the Australian batsmen. Second innings wickets scalps of Aaron Finch, Mitch Marsh (both trapped lbw) and Tim Paine (bowled) were perfect examples of Abbas’s supreme accuracy causing havoc. He found reward on a pitch where other seamers struggled.
A large part of that precision comes from his fluid action. For a skill that can, at times, seem complicated and physically demanding, Abbas makes seam bowling look remarkably easy. From the calm run-up to the effortless jump and release, as well as the easy action in between, Abbas is in a rhythm that allows him to look like he could bowl all day. As a result, his stamina is good and the likelihood of an injury is low. It all seems effortless.
“He (Abbas) is incredibly disciplined,” Australian captain Paine told Wisden.com after the second Test against Pakistan. “He challenges your front foot defence every ball, makes the batter make a decision, forward or back, and you don’t know whether to play or leave. He just does not miss a good area and he has you constantly under pressure. So, when you are facing guys like that, it can be difficult.”
Paine is not wrong but it is easy to perhaps overhype such a bowler. Despite his sensational stats and his plethora of skills and traits, Abbas still is relatively inexperienced in Tests and is yet to test his skills over a long period of time. Many bowlers have enjoyed strong starts to their Test careers and have faded away and Abbas’s task now is to maintain the ultimate success and consistency he has achieved so far.
And yet, despite the risk of over exaggerating and overhyping, the possibility of Abbas continuing his form is what makes cricket, international cricket especially, so thrilling. If Abbas do so for even just ten more Tests, he could boast the most devastating start to a Test career ever. Should he carry it on for longer, he could be rated up there with some of the finest seam bowlers to have played the game.