Australia are set for a Twenty20 tour of New Zealand at the same time the Test team is meant to be redeeming itself in South Africa from the ill-fated 2018 series.
Pakistan’s three biggest threats in the Test series against Australia starting today are leg spinner Yasir Shah, opening batsman Azhar Ali and new seamer Mohammad Abbas.
Australian fans should be familiar with the first two players who have had generous success against the men in baggy greens.
Yasir befuddled the Australian batsmen the last they played a Test series in the UAE, taking 12 wickets as 17 as Pakistan humiliated the tourists.
Azhar Ali, meanwhile, has piled up 837 runs at 70 from seven Tests against Australia, including a magnificent 205no in the Boxing Day Test two years ago.
Yet the comparatively unknown Abbas could have just as big an impact in this two-Test series as either Yasir or Azhar.
He is the kind of precise and relentless seamer who often prospers against Australia, who will field an extremely vulnerable batting lineup missing Steve Smith, David Warner, Cameron Bancroft and Matthew Renshaw.
In the past three years, Abbas incredibly has taken 265 wickets at 15 in first-class cricket. Granted, about two-thirds of those wickets have been secured in Pakistan domestic cricket, which is of fairly low quality compared to Tests or English county cricket.
But Abbas has also run amok at those latter two levels. In eight Tests to date he has grabbed 42 wickets at 17, and in the just-completed county season, he hoarded 62 wickets at 17.
Crucially, Abbas has shown an ability to remain effective on a wide variety of surfaces, performing similarly well on the dry pitches of the UAE and the West Indies as on the far moister decks in England.
That’s because Abbas’ style is the sort which tends to challenge batsmen regardless of pitch conditions. Similar to South Africa’s Vernon Philander and former Pakistani quick Mohammad Asif, Abbas does not rely on helpful conditions to take wickets.
Just like them, or Australian legend Glenn McGrath, he simply lands an exceptionally-high number of deliveries on a testing line and length.
Now, that’s not to suggest Abbas is in the same class as that trio or that he ever will be.
Rather the point is that, to this early stage of his Test career, the Pakistani seamer has shown a level of accuracy and subtle skill which evokes memories of those champions.
He doesn’t have startling pace like Kagiso Rabada, gain steepling bounce like Josh Hazlewood or swing the ball around corners like James Anderson.
Abbas doesn’t seek to bulldoze batsman but instead to asphyxiate them. He bowls delivery after delivery on or just outside off stump on that in-between length which leaves batsmen unsure as to whether to step forward or back.
Abbas moves the ball just enough through the air and off the seam to punish batsman who are caught in two minds, stuck on the crease.
He is also a fine bowler against left-handers, as he showed in Pakistan’s recent 1-1 drawn series in England, where he tormented lefties Alastair Cook and Mark Stoneman. That is significant given Australia will have three left-handers in their top five – Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh and Travis Head.
Against left-handers, Abbas looks equally comfortable bowling either over or around the wicket. From over the wicket he curls the new ball back into left-handers, looking for a bowled or LBW, or setting them up for the off cutter than angles across them and catches the edge.
When around the wicket he continually forces these batsmen to play by bowling from wide of the crease, angling the ball in towards off stump and then getting it to straighten off the seam.
This has helped him to have remarkable success against left-handers thus far in Tests, with 20 wickets at 11. Regardless of whether he is over the wicket or around, Abbas challenges both edges of the bat.
In this way he again is reminiscent of Philander, who has had huge success against Australia’s left-handers doing just this. Philander has taken 53 wickets at 24 against Australia and played a major role in South Africa’s 3-1 victory against them earlier this year.
Abbas won’t have the same generous conditions that Philander enjoyed in that series. But he should ask vexing questions of a makeshift Australian batting lineup this month.