Yet again, Mohammad Abbas has proven that you don’t need pace to succeed in Test cricket. Ben Jones analyses another slow but spectacular performance from Pakistan’s line-and-length juggernaut.
The pitch in Dubai has had people questioning the very nature of Test cricket. As with everything, opinions have quickly flown to either extreme, the surface either yet another death knell for The Ultimate Form Of The Game, or a biblical offering from above designed to weed out only the true believers. Not enjoying this Test? Well, you don’t really like Test cricket, do you?
Neither is right. The Dubai pitch has been slow, low, but has produced an entertaining collapse. It has largely produced dull cricket, but when things started to happen, things happened in a rapid, chaotic manner. However, putting aside partisan opinions, you’d hope that almost everyone would agree that in general, this has been a difficult pitch to bowl on. It is a pitch which bestows greater credit on a five-wicket haul than on a century, you’d argue – though that already may be too strong for some.
And so, the achievements of Mohammad Abbas in this Test match should be held up as greater than the bare numbers of 7 for 55 in 30 overs overs suggest. His control has been astonishing. An economy rate of 1.8rpo is the lowest of anyone to bowl significantly in the match, Australian’s unable to score off him to any great degree; in fact, they’ve attacked just 17% of his deliveries, the lowest figure for any Pakistan bowler.
This Test has required a very specific skillset, the absence of swing or seam meaning that the bowlers have been forced into targeting the one thing – or rather three things – that doesn’t change with the conditions. It’s been a stump-to-stump special in Dubai, with 25.4% of deliveries bowled by the seamers projected to either hit or clip the stumps, the highest figure for any Test since the start of 2013. Between Abbas and Siddle, toiling away for their respective sides, the stumps have rarely been out of the firing line.
Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, because in this regard Abbas is emphatically at the top of the class. Of the 20 seamers to play as many Tests as Abbas (eight matches) since he made his debut, not one targets the stumps more. The slower, lower pitches he has played on for much of his career so far do contribute to this – but the point stands.
Yes, with this sort of pitch Pakistan could hardly have wished for anyone else in the world other than Abbas to be trotting in under the glaring Dubai sun. What’s more, perhaps that sun takes less of a toll on Abbas’ bowling than most, due to his reduced speed. Of those aforementioned 20 bowlers, only one of those men (Jason Holder) has a slower average bowling speed than Abbas’ 127.55kph. Unburdened by excessive pace – because in this heat, averaging 140kph is only going to drain your stamina – Abbas was able to run in again and again, far more up for the task of digging in than the Australian batsmen who were facing him.
This shouldn’t surprise us, but cricket is obsessed with pace. Of course, it can be thrilling, gripping stuff when a fast bowler has the bit between their teeth, hammering the ball in and sending batsman pirouetting away to square leg. But surely, after more than 140 years playing this sport, we’ve learned that it’s not the only way to take wickets? You would imagine that Aesop wasn’t a cricket fan, because if he had been, the tale of the Tortoise and the Hare would have been rather different. The tortoise would have done a perfectly serviceable job, respectable but nothing more, but the hare would have sprinted through to the finish, winning the race charging along at 90mph, before taking the plaudits, and starring in a series of sepia drenched documentaries about how quickly they’d run, and how frightening it was to race them.
In a way it’s apt that Abbas has had such success against the Australians, given that he could be seen as a kind of spiritual successor to Glenn McGrath, another noble exponent of the lower end of the speed-gun. Indeed, Abbas’ bowling average in this Test so far (7.85) is the lowest for any seamer in a UAE Test (min two wickets) since Abdul Razzaq took 3-22 in 2002 at Sharjah, but in that same Test McGrath himself took 3-15. Perhaps pace isn’t what you need to take wickets in the UAE, given that there’s enough heat as it is. You need control.
Yet even to caveat Abbas’ success with the idea he’s “a great bowler of his type” is to miss the point. Since Abbas made his debut, 13 bowlers have taken more wickets than him. None of them have taken them at a better average. Currently, with a red ball in his hand, Abbas is a world-class bowler, period.
Before this Test, the notable absence of Mohammad Amir was the focus, and maybe that’s fair. Amir’s whirling action, expressive body language and off-field controversies, he draws the eye in a way that Abbas’ calm demeanour simply doesn’t. But for a wide range of reasons, you would not be surprised one bit if Abbas went on to take more Test wickets at a finer average than his compatriot.
Australia will head into the final day of this Test knowing that a defeat is all but certain, barring some wizardry from Usman Khawaja. They have been pinned in this position by Abbas, slowly but securely moving them into an inescapable position. Right now, there are few finer fast bowlers in the world.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.