After a starring role at Lord’s, Mohammad Abbas is the name on everyone’s lips. Ben Jones reflects on the rise of the Pakistan seamer, and examines his mode of attack.
Pakistan head to Leeds with a spring in their step, after a resounding victory at Lord’s where they showed remarkable discipline and patience to overcome an undercooked England side. In many ways their performance was surprising, not for its quality but its nature. Pakistan’s bowling unit fizzes with volatile talent, yet despite being among the most aggressive and incisive in the world, does not immediately appear “disciplined”. This is an attack overwhelmingly made up of vibrant, sparkling talents.
Hasan Ali, whose celebrations make Imran Tahir look like a shrinking violet, has already dominated a global tournament. Shadab Khan is a teenage, leg-spinning, stylish all-rounder with the world at his feet. Mohammad Amir is an era-defining talent. It’s an attack of headline acts.
In amongst the firecrackers and crowd-drawers, is 28 year-old Mohammad Abbas. On paper, Abbas is the methodical and reliable intermission to the rest of the attack, a stump-to-stump seamer who nibbles it around, allowing both crowd and teammates to catch their breath before the next act begins. He’s the maypole around which the others dance, the greens you have to eat before you’re allowed dessert. He should be boring.
In reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Amir’s Akram-esque wicket to dismiss Jonny Bairstow may have been the moment of the Test, but Abbas’ 8-64 was the star performance, and the one on which the victory was built. Nor was it a one-off, as his 40 Test wickets at 16.62 attest. Watching Abbas bowl right now is thrilling in the way watching a masterful spinner can be, the contest less a physical spectacle than a cerebral one. As the ball is sent down at that teasing 80mph, you can almost hear the English and Irish batsmen tying themselves in knots, going back, then forward, then finally back again – to the pavilion with their bat tucked under their arm.
With tight control and subtle lateral movement, his attributes might not be as eye-catching as those around him, but what he does do is tremendously effective. Indeed, since Abbas debuted last April against the Windies, nobody who has more wickets than him has a lower average. The infrequency with which Pakistan play Test cricket (only four nations have played fewer Tests than Pakistan since Abbas was selected) is the only reason he’s not being discussed more excitedly.
Well, that and his aforementioned bowling speed – or lack thereof. At a time when Australia’s pace attack is lauded for its 150kph firepower, and England are bemoaning the slow-and-steady nature of their seamers, Abbas is a man deeply out of sync with cricketing trends. Were the Sialkot seamer tearing in off a long run-up, as Kagiso Rabada did in Centurion two years ago, then the reaction to his arrival would without a doubt be more full on. But he isn’t tearing in; he’s barely ambling. In the last four years, no seamer with 20 wickets has bowled slower than him. Yet he still holds a better average than all those them.
The instinctive judgement when a bowler of Abbas’ pace does well in Test cricket is to wax lyrical about accuracy, damning with faint praise. But accuracy isn’t a given – as shown below, there is very little difference in bowling accuracy once you drop below 145kph, and if a bowler is accurate it’s a virtue of skill rather than a simple lack of pace.
Regardless, it’s no empty cliché to suggest that what Abbas lacks in pace he recovers in unrelenting control; the man is elite in terms of accuracy. Since he made his debut, only two seamers have landed over half their deliveries on a “good” length, the zone between 6.25m and 8m away from the batsman: the South African seamer Vernon Philander, and Abbas himself.
Alongside this control, Abbas’ central weapon is the degree to which he targets the stumps. In general, the frequency of deliveries aimed at the stumps in Test cricket is a commonly misunderstood; in the last five years, just 12% of balls bowled by seamers would have hit the stumps. Equally, if it was that easy to just bowl at the stumps, teams would be being rolled left, right and centre, given that those balls average 14.27.
Yet some bowlers, for reasons ranging from pitch condition to release height, find that area extremely profitable, and Abbas is one of those bowlers. His balls on the stumps average 6.44, the third best among the bowlers under discussion. On top of this, he targets them more than almost everybody else; in short, Abbas bowls at the stumps more than the majority, and he’s mighty effective when he does. Not bad as bowling strategies go.
Now, as mentioned before, the only man who’s had comparable success in this era of Test cricket with a similar bowling style and relationship to the speed gun, is Philander. Both him and Abbas are stocky seam bowlers who do rely on accuracy as their primary weapon; they perform similar roles in their attack, each giving way to more fiery bowlers at the other end.
But the comparison between them extends beyond an aesthetic resemblance, to the point of almost eerie similarity. In Tests, Philander averages 0.8° of swing, as does Abbas. Philander averages 0.6° of seam movement; Abbas averages 0.5. Their pace is almost identical, Philander averaging 128.97kph compared to Abbas’ 127.64kph.
On top of these biomechanical similarities, they also produce broadly similar results for their teams. Abbas takes a wicket every 45 balls, Philander every 46. Their economies are 2.4rpo and 2.6rpo respectively. In a cricketing remake of the Social Network, they’d be your Winklevoss twins.
The most significant stylistic difference between them is in their release position. On average, Abbas releases the ball 20cm wider on the crease than Philander, and this may explain the difference in the areas where they snare their victims. As shown in their dismissal heatmaps to right-handed batsmen, Abbas really targets the stumps, whereas Philander seems to get more nicks and caught behinds.
Conversely, to left-handers, the opposite is true. Abbas appears to get more wickets with wider deliveries, ones on more of a fifth/sixth stump line, whilst Philander targets the pads.
One could infer that Abbas’ wider release makes it easier for him to naturally angle the ball across the left-hander, whilst Philander finds a straight line more dangerous because of his tighter release. Likewise, some of these differences in angle and length can be explained by Philander’s longevity; he’s bowled in a wider variety of conditions, against far more (and at this stage, far better) batsmen than Abbas.
However, they are fundamentally similar bowlers who threaten batsmen in similar ways. We shouldn’t be surprised by Abbas’ early success in the British Isles – since 2008, only two overseas bowlers have performed better in England than Philander.
Abbas will have to get through a hefty 53-over workload at Headingley if he’s to qualify for that list on this tour. Similarly, he’ll have to maintain this level of excellence for another few years before he’s truly regarded as being an elite Test bowler, and most would suggest that he’ll need to tour South Africa and Australia, and successfully adapt to the conditions there. However, recent history suggests that the toughest conditions for his style of bowling are on his adopted doorstep. In the last five years, balls targeting the stumps average more in the UAE than anywhere else in the world.
With that in mind, we really could be in for a treat over the next few years. If Mohammad Abbas can overcome cricket’s fetishisation of pace, the bias of conditions and aesthetics, then it would churlish to suggest he can’t sustain this wonderful start to his Test career. If he can, people will be flocking through the turnstiles to watch him, not the man at the other end.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz. @benjonescricket