From carrying drinks to leading the South African line-up - The transformation of Kyle Abbott
When Australia walked out on Day 4 at Hobart to save the series, the objective would have been to play out as many overs as possible to creep slowly towards South Africa's total. However, what followed was a debacle courtesy some of the finest displays of seam bowling in this tour - by a certain Kyle Abbott, who ended with six wickets to his name and walked off with the Player of the Match award.
The name is familiar throughout the cricket world, but rarely has he got an opportunity to etch his name into the memories of an average cricket fan. His performances have been spectacular but chances have been sporadic.
The man from Zululand – home to one of the best all-rounders South Africa have ever produced, Lance Klusener, Abbot had a dream debut against the visiting Pakistanis in 2013 as a replacement for Jacques Kallis. He almost emulated Klusener's eight-wicket haul on debut by grabbing seven of the Pakistani wickets in the first innings. The ninth best figures by a debutant and second best for a Proteas bowler, Abbott had made a mark.
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But what followed was unprecedented. The return of Kallis and a fast bowling trio of Steyn, Philander and Morne Morkel meant that Abbott was pushed to the sidelines despite a great debut. His next opportunity came only a year later when he was chosen as the fourth seamer against the Aussies in Cape Town in March 2014, where he grabbed three wickets, coming in to bowl after part-timer, JP Duminy.
A long wait followed yet again and the next time he played was in December 2014 against the West Indies in Centurion, again at home. He was again the fourth seamer behind the famed trio and was hardly required as Steyn, Philander and Morkel ran through the Windies to record an innings victory.
The World Cup debacle
The wait this time was longer as yet another year followed with little game time in Tests for Abbott. However, he was slowly marking his value as a limited overs bowler, who can zoom in the yorker at the death. In Philander's absence, due to injury in the 2015 World Cup, Abbott figured in three matches in the league stage and also played the quarter finals.
He was the standout seamer for the Proteas as he grabbed 9 wickets in the 4 matches at a strike rate of 20.60 and economy of 4.19. But in a controversial decision, he was dropped for a fit again Philander for the semi-final against the Kiwis and we all know what contrived then.
In Tests, he remained a drinks boy as young Rabada, benefitting from a fast tracking to international cricket following his domestic form, made his name for the Proteas. It wasn't until a bout of injuries to his fellow seamers, that Abbott was selected to play again. In the match against India in Bangalore in the second Test of the Freedom series, rain wrecked his comeback as he bowled only six overs in a match that was a washout.
One wondered when Abbott might get another chance, given Rabada's emergence and the trio of frontline seamers still going strong.
The Delhi Test that turned around fortunes
But in Delhi, in the fourth Test, with the series already lost, Abbott was called up again as both Steyn and Philander were down with injuries. In dry, batting conditions, Abbott bowled his heart out giving just 40 runs in 25 tight overs and grabbing a five-wicket haul.
Abbott asked all the right questions, but spinner Piedt picked up the wickets and the spotlight. Rohit Sharma and Saha were dropped off Abbott's bowling but he continued relentlessly and finished with five to his name.
Even in the second innings, Abbott was super tight, conceding just 47 in 22 overs but had just a wicket to show for. There was a maturity about his performance that screamed for his inclusion even when the likes of Philander and Steyn were fit.
The England series
The series against England in 2015 December, at home, saw him in the starting XI in the first Test of a series for the first time. It was also the first time he was figuring in South Africa's side for two consecutive Tests. However, Abbott couldn't make it count as he grabbed just two wickets across the two innings at Durban.
He was once again pushed to the sidelines after a poor show in one Test and returned only for the final Test of the series in Centurion. He ensured that he did not mess up this time and bowled tight, probing spells in a Test that Proteas were playing for pride.
Rabada had all the wickets to show for, however, as he grabbed seven. But Abbott was impressive with his tight lines and inspite of finishing wicket less, his bowling partnership with Rabada was something to write home about.
However, he wasn't considered in the eleven when New Zealand came to South Africa as Steyn returned to the side, inspiring the Proteas to a series win.
The Australian tour
Abbott was picked for the Australian tour but wasn't expected to play in any of the games being the fifth seamer in the squad that already had Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel. An injury to Steyn in the first Test, saw the experienced walk off the field in the first innings itself and out of the series.
Morkel, who was already nursing an injury, wasn't considered for Hobart in the second Test and Abbott was suddenly in the scheme of things. He opened the bowling with Philander and trapped Joe Burns – another batsman on a comeback – plumb in front, with a sharp inswinger.
Abbott continued to impress with his lines and movement as South Africa bowled out Australia for a meagre 85. After Bavuma and de Kock took South Africa's lead to 240, Abbott opened with the new ball in the second innings and once again grabbed Burns in the first over, courtesy a leg-side trap.
He went on to remove Warner as well before Day 3 ended. The next day saw Abbott and Philander at their best as they probed continuously against Smith and Khawaja. Smith remained on his overnight score for as many as 11 overs. The pressure finally accounted for Khawaja, falling to Abbott again. He grabbed Adam Voges next, and had all of the top 4 wickets to fall to his name. Abbott finished with six wickets in the second innings and was named the Man of the Match.
This performance has certainly put Abbott in the limelight again, but rarely has he not been there, when given the opportunity. Transformation guidelines and emergence of a few young talented fast bowlers could easily put Abbott out if reckoning.
For a fast bowler averaging 21.83 in Tests, 8 matches in a career spanning three years is too low. Even Mitchell Starc averages greater than Abbott but has been touted as the next best fast bowler. Abbott needs a fair run in the team to bring out his best, which is probably still hidden.
An injury that has ruled out Steyn for a couple of months could prove to be a blessing in disguise for Abbott's career. His ability to grab whatever little opportunity comes his way is appreciable. 30 wickets in 8 Tests with three five-wicket hauls and a best of 7/29 are champion figures and not ones to be wasted as a drinks boy.
There is a rumour that Abbott missed his debut call from convenor of selectors, Andrew Hudson. Not recognising the number, Abbott did not answer the call and went to sleep. He woke up to a voice message informing him of his selection, and rushed to Johannesburg to destroy the Pakistanis.
The opposite has been true of his career thus far, though. He hasn't missed a single call coming his way. Just that there have been few calls to wait for. The Hobart Test could be a real turnaround, though, and Abbott's fans will be hoping for more game time now from their hero.