Danyal Rasool in Cape Town
Cape Town is Vernon Philander’s home ground, and in more ways than one. It is the place he made his debut, in that surreal game where South Africa bowled Australia out for 47, with Philander registering figures of 5 for 15. That match may have been freakish, a one-off, but Philander’s performances in subsequent years – everywhere in the world but particularly here – have not: 49 wickets in nine Newlands Tests at 16.55 leaves little room for arguments to the contrary.
But in the Pakistan dressing room just across, Philander may spot a kindred soul – even if he has previously seen little of him. Newlands will be Mohammad Abbas‘ 13th Test, and the first time he has taken to the field in South Africa. Like Philander, he could at best be described as medium-fast, forced instead to draw upon a range of skills most fast bowlers in his country have not needed to perfect because of the pace they were gifted with. Like Philander, he made his debut late (27 to Philander’s 26). Like Philander, he has made an explosive start to Test cricket, and like Philander, he missed the first of this three-Test series nursing an injury.
The match-up between these two bowlers is as intriguing as it is unlikely. Who would imagine in the build-up to a Test in South Africa, the most absorbing conversations were to be had comparing two self-effacing medium-pacers in sides brimming with personality, aggression, verve and raw pace?
“Abbas has showcased his skill on the dustbowls of Dubai, leaving him little option but to go gun-barrel straight and strip away the batsman’s choice of letting the ball go”
It is their world-class talent that drives the interest. Philander’s record is well established but, in his first dozen matches, Abbas isn’t too far removed from the South African’s career trajectory. In his first 12 Tests, Philander had 67 wickets at 17.98 with a strike rate of 37.2. Abbas is hot on his heels, with 61 wickets at 16.62, his strike rate only slightly behind at 42.4.
It may well be a premature comparison, and there are a couple of caveats – though perhaps not in the direction you would expect. Philander’s first 12 Tests comprised of four in South Africa, three in New Zealand, three in England, and a pair in Australia. If you were crafting out a wishlist of where you wanted to be while bowling fast, it would be indistinguishable from that schedule. Abbas, on the other hand, has played half of his 12 in the UAE, with a further three in the West Indies, two in England and one in Ireland.
Add to that Abbas’ obvious discomfort in the last two matches he played – the Tests against New Zealand before he was sidelined by the shoulder injury that also kept him out at Centurion. If those two Tests were removed from his record, his average improves to 59 wickets at 15.64, with a strike rate of 38. This is not to ignore poor Test performances in order to exaggerate his quality, but simply to provide a clearer picture of how lethal Abbas has been, on mostly unhelpful wickets, so far in his career.
The comparison isn’t just about the numbers, engagingly similar as they are; the methods the pair seem to apply as they go searching have an unmistakeable resemblance. Both are, as Faf du Plessis put it, “very similar bowlers who come at you relentlessly all day”. The unerring line and length ball after ball wears batsmen down more often than not, subtle seam movement drawing false shots and taking outside edges. Their tactic of targeting the stumps invariably brings lbw into play in a much more significant way than is the case for most bowlers, a skill that Abbas, in particular, has almost perfected.
That is because no matter how much they resemble each other, each has had to find a way to evolve and thrive in their respective environments. In South Africa, where seam movement is more plentiful and swing more abundant, Philander is permitted a wider corridor in which to bowl and still leave the batsman uncertain about playing at him. Abbas has been forced to showcase his skill on the dustbowls of Dubai, for the most part, which leaves him little option but to go gun-barrel straight and strip away the batsman’s choice of letting the ball go. You can see it play out in the way the pair have found their wickets; Philander’s 205 scalps have included just 66 lbw and bowled dismissals, while Abbas has taken 32 of his 61 wickets in that fashion.
There is another way to look at how Abbas has not let playing on uncooperative wickets become his excuse. According to ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball data, in the time since Philander made his debut, 22.9% of the balls he has bowled at Newlands have drawn false shots from the batsman. It is the second highest percentage at the ground, with only Kagiso Rabada bettering it at nearly 26% (Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn rank third and fourth, with 22.4% and 20.4% respectively). Abbas, meanwhile, shuffling his way through over after over on spin paradises, still induces batsmen into false shots 18.23% of the time – not a world away from what Philander has done at his ground of choice. That he does so without the luxury of any significant seam movement or real swing is particularly eye-catching. As Sarfraz Ahmed said in the Newlands build-up: “I know this is Vernon’s home town, so he will enjoy bowling here, but there is no reason Abbas will not enjoy it too.”
Sarfraz was also cautious not to get carried away by Abbas’ dreamlike start to international cricket, saying he had a long way still to go. “I think you can’t compare Philander and Abbas yet, because Philander has been playing for almost 10 years, and Abbas has only played for Pakistan for 18 months. Abbas is just starting his career, but his bowling looks a lot like Vernon Philander’s. If Abbas plays cricket for Pakistan for a long time, he has the ability to be the same bowler Philander is for South Africa.”
It is a fair point, and if Abbas is to be spoken of in those terms all the time, he has many years’ worth of work ahead of him. But if he is indeed fully fit, he could find himself bowling on a surface more receptive to his wiles than he has ever been allowed the opportunity to play on. This may be Philander’s home town, but in Abbas Pakistan have a player set to make the undisputed King of Cape Town hustle to defend his territory.