In the end, the beginning
As the sun began to set on the South African summer this year, Yusuf Abdulla was preparing to play his last cricket of the season. His schedule would see him compete in three more matches - all of them first-class four-day domestic fixtures for his franchise, the Dolphins. Thereafter, he could look forward to a mild Durban winter of rest and recovery. Little did Abdulla know that his summer would stretch on for a few weeks longer.
His fine domestic Pro20 form, which saw him claim 10 wickets at an average of 17.10, earned him a call-up to the South African Twenty20 squad to face Australia. He was given just a single bite at the cherry, and only featured in one of the two matches against the Aussies, but he made sure he bit hard. His figures of 1 for 16 in three overs included the prize scalp of Ricky Ponting. That was enough to get him noticed by the people who matter.
"I thought my season was going to end, but Tom Moody saw me in that game and the next day he called me up asked if I would be interested in playing for Punjab in the Indian Premier League", Abdulla recalls. The speed at which he had gone from being just another domestic player to a part of cricket's premier 20-over tournament still shocks him. "I still can't believe how quickly it all happened. By that stage I knew the tournament was going to be held in South Africa, and it couldn't have worked out any better".
The IPL has given many little-known Indian players their 15 minutes of fame but how did South Africa's stocky swing bowler get in the frame?
Abdulla is from a Muslim family and grew up in Lenasia, a largely Indian suburb in the south of Johannesburg. He spent some of his high-school career in Gauteng, before his family moved to the coal-mining town of Dundee in KwaZulu Natal (KZN). At 18 he was selected for the KZN academy and taken under the coach Yashin Ebrahim's wing.
"I always knew he had potential because of his natural ability to swing the ball," Ebrahim says. Abdulla spent his time with the Dolphins priming himself for the big time. After a solid 2006-07 season, in which he took nine wickets at an average of 12.00 in the Pro20, Abdulla was picked as one of 20 amateur players to attend the national academy based at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria. While the academy's only competitive cricket was against Zimbabwe A, Abdulla saw it as an opportunity to learn everything he could. "I had already been coached by Graham Ford and Phil Russel, so I had a lot of good mentorship. I still wanted to work on my weaknesses and the academy gave me the room to do that".
His performance in the season that followed was testament to his hard work. In the 2007-08 season he took 10 wickets at an average of 13.40 in the Pro20. Besides being the Dolphins' main strike bowler in the shorter form of the game, Abdulla also refined his Twenty20 technique. He learnt to disguise his slower ball well, and to fire it in fast from a low and wide angle outside the off stump.
Ebrahim says that apart from the minor adjustments to his technique, Abdulla's success can be largely attributed to his strong will. "When he started to back himself, it came together. He worked hard on his mindset even more than his technique. It was no surprise when he was selected for the national side."
Despite his sterling performances in the shorter version of the game, he has only managed to record one five-wicket haul in first-class cricket. His fitness has also often come under question because of his rotund build. "Ideally we would want him to lose some weight, but he has passed all our tests," says Ebrahim.
While Abdulla is looking to improve his form in the longer version of the game, he has one eye on being selected for the World Twenty20 in June and has emerged as one of the few Twenty20 specialists in South African cricket. "He is immensely competitive and seems to thrive on limited-overs cricket. In that form of the game, he is the go-to man for wickets and is as good an opening bowler as anyone in the country," says Ahmed Amla, the Dolphins captain.
Ultimately it was these factors and local knowledge that swung him into favour with Punjab. With the team playing six out of their 14 matches in Durban, and Jerome Taylor ruled out injured, they opted for a South African bowler to assist in leading the attack.
Their first two games were rain affected, and Abdulla's performance could hardly be judged on those lines. He was flogged for 19 runs in the solitary over he bowled to the Delhi Daredevils. That baptism of fire exposed him to batsman he rates most highly. "Even though I only bowled the one over, I can tell you that Virender Sehwag is one of the most difficult batsmen to bowl to in the world". Punjab lost to the Kolkata Knight Riders in their second match, with Abdulla being clobbered for 20 runs in two overs.
A change in the Kings XI's fortunes has been followed up with a change in fortunes for Abdulla as well. He's notched up figures of 4 for 31 against the Royal Challengers Bangalore, among them the wickets of Kevin Pietersen and Jacques Kallis. His return of 3 for 21 against the Rajasthan Royals catapulted him into the top five leading wicket-takers in the tournament. And he went to joint second with a stellar last over in Punjab's victory against the Mumbai Indians last night.
Many credit his success to the softer wickets of the coast, which tend to favour swing bowlers, and say the real test will come when the IPL moves inland. Abdulla himself says it hasn't been that easy. "Everybody says the wickets in Durban and Cape Town will suit me, but it has been tough. These wickets are being played on for anything like three matches in a row and by then they are behaving differently to what I am used to. It all depends on what happens on the day and how well I bowl."
Abdulla is still overwhelmed by the leap from provincial cricket into the IPL. He says the immense quality of players in the IPL still mesmerises him. "The main difference between the IPL and domestic cricket is that, for example, when I play against the Lions I am bowling to an opening combination of Alviro Petersen and Jean Symes, but in the IPL it's to Chris Gayle and Brendon McCullum. So even though I am not saying domestic cricket isn't challenging, the IPL is a step higher and there's one quality player after the next".
That exposure to players of the highest calibre is also affording Abdulla the opportunity to absorb advice from international players. "I believe in learning wherever I go. The best thing about the IPL is that I am learning from more than one guy all the time. I get advice from players like Yuvraj Singh, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Irfan Pathan."
At 26 he is not ashamed of seeking guidance. "I am quite close to Hashim Amla, not just in cricketing matters. I talk to him about all sorts of things, and I'd say we are the best of friends".
Abdullah says he couldn't be happier about his extended summer. "There has been absolutely no strain on my body at all and I am really happy to be a part of this. I am just really enjoying it."
Firdose Moonda is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg