CricViz Analysis: Mohammad Abbas – the Best Bowler in the World?

On a day when another batting line-up was powerless to resist Mohammad Abbas’ attack, Ben Jones considers the wonder of Pakistan’s late-blooming genius.

Our judgement can be affected by a lot of odd things. We can randomly dislike a player for all sorts of ridiculous reasons, from the fact that they did well against the team we support to the fact that they didn’t; because they played a long time ago, or because they’ve only just started. That’s why discussions about who’s the greatest are so silly. You may think your preference for Lionel Messi over Cristiano Ronaldo is based on logic and considered thought, but it’s just as likely to be because you watched him dismantle Real Madrid when you were an impressionable 15 years old. If you try to keep track of how often an article about a golden age of music lionises the time when the author was a teenager, you’d lose track in a week.

Ideally, if you wanted to try and work out empirically who, when, or what was the greatest, you’d have to put yourself in the shoes of a sort of objective, trans-historical alien being, with no bias or allegiances. They could look at the entirety of a sport’s history, removed from the ebb and flow of affections and favour, and give you an actual answer. And if you asked that being who the best bowler in the world is, in 2018, they’d most likely say Mohammad Abbas.

Because if you zoom out of the present moment, of the feverish excitement that abounds whenever Abbas is mentioned or steps out onto a cricket field, then his record compares favourably with every bowler to ever play the game. His average of 15.64 is the fourth best of all time, for those bowlers to manage 50 wickets in Test cricket – the last bowler to average less than Abbas, George Lohmann, has been dead for 117 years. The levels that the Pakistan man is hitting right now are historic. He has taken more wickets than William Bates and William Barnes, two of the few men with comparable success in this regard. What’s more, Abbas has sustained that remarkable average on covered pitches, and covered UAE pitches at that.

So, from that completely macro perspective, let’s zoom in a bit closer. In the semi-modern era, which we’ll take as since World War Two, no bowler with 50 wickets has a better strike rate than Mohammad Abbas. Every 38 balls, he strikes, a more regular threat to the wicket column than any other established bowler in this era.

Let’s zoom closer still. Since Abbas made his debut in April 2017, nobody has taken as many wickets as him at a better average. His strike rate is paralleled only by Kagiso Rabada. James Anderson is the only bowler with a lower economy rate. He is a strike bowler, and a containing bowler, in one body.

He allows Pakistan to play just three other bowlers, comfortable in the knowledge that even on a bad day he will hold up an end. He has never conceded runs at over 4rpo in a Test innings, but he’s also never gone wicketless, a reliable source of both control and incision. The effect he has on the balance of his side is not unlike that of a star all-rounder, freeing up room to allow the side to pick more extravagant, luxury options.

Again, let’s zoom in closer. In this Test match in Abu Dhabi, he’s been almost comically far ahead of the other bowlers in terms of wicket-taking threat. Using CricViz’s Wicket Probability model, built on historical ball-tracking data, we can assess the likelihood of any given delivery taking a wicket. In this match, Abbas’ average delivery has a 2.4% chance of taking a wicket, a figure far in excess of anything else any bowler has managed. Same ball, same pitch, same batsmen – but Abbas has been head and shoulders above the pack.

What’s more, he’s done it with little to no lateral movement. Mitchell Marsh has bowled a fraction slower than Abbas, but found substantially more movement; Abbas took his wickets with accuracy and precision, and very little more. That’s a serious skill, and more importantly, it’s a portable one. He doesn’t require the sideways movement or extravagant bounce that other contenders for the best bowler in the world may rely on – he is set to succeed in all conditions.

Let’s go closer still, and just look at the actual process of him bowling. His action is effortless, gorgeously fluid, his head still throughout the leap, the gather, the delivery stride in its entirety. For him, the comically unnatural process of bowling looks as natural and instinctive as breathing. Aesthetically he ticks all the boxes, and it allows him to send down those accurate, seaming darts with little to no effort. His stamina and skill both come from this set-up, all the more beautiful for being effective.

In terms of that style, the bowler Abbas is most often compared to is Vernon Philander – but there is an argument that Abbas is a more versatile bowler. In the last 18 months he has played 11 of his 12 Tests in in England and South Africa; the average movement for all seamers in those countries across that period is 1° of swing and 0.7° of seam. By comparison, Abbas has played 7 of his 9 Tests 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. This is a crude measure, but it outlines the way in which Abbas is largely bowling in less helpful conditions than Philander. Perhaps the effect of this are counterbalanced by Philander broadly bowling to better batsmen in this period, but it’s still of note. Abbas is yet to tour South Africa. With the pitch lending him a hand, he could be devastating.

Of course, it’s easy to get overexcited in this situation. We may well, in the next 12 months, see Abbas tail off. It may be that my imagined omniscient observer is scoffing at us right now, fully aware that after the initial fireworks Abbas’ career regresses to a more human level, and continues his career unspectacularly.

But the reason Abbas is so exciting, the reason why the cricket world is finding his success quite so thrilling, is because we don’t have that omniscient perspective. The excitement of watching Abbas is fuelled in part by the idea that maybe, just maybe, he could sustain this for 20 Tests. Maybe 30 Tests. Imagine if he sustained it for 50 Tests. That anticipation, that potential completely untainted by being as yet unfulfilled, is among the best feelings one can experience in sport.

And what’s more, that sensation is what matters. When Abbas retires, and we begin to get something like objectivity on his career, we’ll remember this moment, the first time when he appeared as good as any bowler in the game. His average may hold, or swell; his greatness may increase, or fall away; but there will always be that brief time when, historically, Abbas stood alongside all those before him.

So, while we still can, let’s relish the limitless potential of Mohammad Abbas, the best bowler in the world.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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