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Mohammad Abbas transforms contest to leave England’s outlook cloudy | ESPNcricinfo.com – ESPNcricinfo


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Mohammad Abbas transforms contest to leave England’s outlook cloudy | ESPNcricinfo.com – ESPNcricinfo

It’s just a fact of life it is harder to get excited about Mohammad Abbas than it is Shaheen Afridi or Naseem Shah. Abbas is 30, but alongside the 20-year old Afridi and 17-year old Naseem, looks positively middle-aged. His somewhat-bored frown and world-weary countenance, combined with a gait that’s more shuffle than stride, could…

Mohammad Abbas transforms contest to leave England’s outlook cloudy | ESPNcricinfo.com – ESPNcricinfo

It’s just a fact of life it is harder to get excited about Mohammad Abbas than it is Shaheen Afridi or Naseem Shah. Abbas is 30, but alongside the 20-year old Afridi and 17-year old Naseem, looks positively middle-aged. His somewhat-bored frown and world-weary countenance, combined with a gait that’s more shuffle than stride, could make you mistake him for one of those desi uncles you actively avoid trying to sit next to at stuffy dinner parties you never wanted to be at.

Put the cricket whites on him, though, a brand new red ball in his hand and wave the sun away, and this apparently unremarkable man undergoes a metamorphosis that would be Kafkaesque if it wasn’t free of any existential despair. Abbas the bowler doesn’t sulk about being overlooked. He’s well aware he isn’t able to compete with the cool kids for social media traction or YouTube clips. He doesn’t exist to enthrall, but to be appreciated.

For there are no bells and whistles to Mohamad Abbas. He can’t bat to save his life, as it took Jofra Archer one ball to demonstrate. He’s not a gun fielder like Shadab Khan is, for example, and he isn’t the most engaging at press conferences. He won’t head too many marketing campaigns, you won’t find his face plastered across billboards in Pakistan, and if you ever spot him having a late night drink anywhere, it’s probably nothing stronger than a hot chocolate.

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But as the curtain began to fall on Pakistan’s innings, the stars began to align for Afridi and Naseem’s sidekick. Quietly, imperceptibly, the sun, which had peered out from behind the clouds, almost as a reward for Shan Masood’s epic resilience, disappeared back behind, and as the skies above Old Trafford turned grey, Abbas felt the transformation happening. Never mind everybody still thought Afridi was the one to watch out for – and if you were Rory Burns, he certainly was – but the first over from Abbas was an unassumingly devastating reminder why this ostensibly harmless dibbly-dobbler opened the bowling ahead of the most explosive teenage fast bowler in world cricket.

He spent an entire over getting the ball to hold its line outside off stump to Dom Sibley; if anything, the occasional one seamed away. Half an over in, the young English batsman wondered what all the fuss was about, and worked him dismissively behind square for two. Two balls later, he got one past the slip cordon, and even if he wasn’t entirely in control, he had taken six off this supposedly metronomically accurate bowler’s first over. Result.

First ball next over, Abbas pulled his line back. You can’t afford to do that at his pace, and Sibley clipped him to midwicket for another two. But then Abbas sprung the trap, pitching it up, and bringing it back off the seam so sharply the bat may well have been at the other Old Trafford, so wide was the gap when the ball clattered into the pads. That first over didn’t look so innocuous after all.

If that left you salivating, you were in luck, because this was just the appetiser. Ben Stokes thought he had spotted the mistake the inexperienced Sibley was making, and made a point to stand half a metre outside his crease, almost finishing his shots in the danger area. That approach has troubled Abbas in the past, especially in Australia, where, forced to pull his lengths back, he struggled.

Abbas isn’t half the bowler when the stumps are out of the equation: 41 of his 77 Test wickets have involved trapping the batsman in front or knocking back his stumps. Unless Mohammad Rizwan was willing to keep up to the stumps in what was only the fourth over of the innings, it appeared Abbas wouldn’t be the man to threaten Stokes, especially with the Englishman coming into this series in the batting form of his career.

Abbas had decided, though, he wouldn’t back down. Of the six balls he bowled to Stokes, just one was pitched back of a length; the others were all fuller as he probed for a weakness. It was the most absorbing ten minutes of the entire Test, as a world-renowned World Cup-winning superstar tried to stand his ground against an understated medium-fast bowler. Rizwan wasn’t coming up. It was all down to Abbas.

He didn’t need anyone else. As Stokes charged at him again, Abbas banged the ball in on a length, his exquisite control over the seam allowing it to shape ever so slightly away. As Stokes drove instinctively, the bat hit fresh air. The ball had gone past, and the next thing you saw was the bails flying out from behind. Abbas had found a gap Stokes didn’t believe existed. Joe Root’s face, a picture of admiring disbelief, was perhaps the only compliment worthy of the delivery.

Half an hour later, the attention had drifted away from Abbas once again. Everyone began to get restless, eager to catch a glimpse of the much-hyped Naseem Shah. Abbas would bowl a few more overs from his end while the world paid attention to the other one. You barely noticed him dropping out of the attack as Yasir Shah came in.

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Abbas took his cap from the umpire, and went off to field somewhere on the boundary. The sun had come back out, and the cool kids had stolen the limelight once more.

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