South Africa v Australia, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 2nd day March 2, 2014

Abbott toils without reward

'They've batted incredibly well' - Abbott

Kyle Abbott delivered his first ball in international cricket in February 2013. It came after five balls after Vernon Philander broke Pakistan's opening partnership in Centurion. Dale Steyn and Rory Kleinveldt had applied pressure before that and all Abbott needed to do was follow in that vein.

By the end of that day, Abbott had raced past all three of those seamers. Through a combination of swing and accuracy, Abbott finished the day with the second-best bowling figures by a South African on debut and Pakistan were following on. Perhaps Test cricket wasn't so difficult after all.

More than a year later Abbott bowled for the second time in an international match. Australia's openers had surged to 64 without loss. Steyn and Philander were off colour, Morkel was quick and threatening but had not broken through and Graeme Smith had already resorted to using a spinner. Suddenly, Test cricket seemed a much tougher game.

"A year ago I sat here after my first Test, I bowled exactly the same and had seven wickets to my name," Abbott said. "I probably bowled a bit worse then actually, but that's the great thing about this game, it humbles you."

Without a single wicket to his name, Abbott has been brought back down to earth even though he had more than 12 months to come down from the high of his maiden outing. There was not much swing to be found on the first day's cool but dry air and the surface did not have much in it for the seamers so the going was tough against an Australian line-up that were intent on asserting themselves. "It was pretty demanding out there," Abbott admitted. "But I also think we stuck at it well."

With Morne Morkel assuming the role of the attacker in Dale Steyn's absence, the rest of the pack were supposed to hold the line. Neither Vernon Philander nor the spinners did that while Abbott came closest. He said he knew there be a little more needed from him given that South Africa were a man down. "He is the world leading bowler so not having him will make a dent in your plans. Graeme [Smith] said this is the card we've been dealt and he is going to call a lot more on the bowlers."

Abbott compared the challenge of being without Steyn to being similar to the one he faced this morning, when howling wind threatened to throw him off his line at any moment. He also knew he was better than being blown away and wanted to prove it.

For five consecutive overs, Abbott did not give a run away. He bowled just short of a length, a line close to offstump and Steve Smith's bat, before going up against a nervy Michael Clarke on 99. Clarke elaborately shouldered arms to what could be either the leave or the ball of the day, one that moved back into him and missed the stumps by millimetres.

Abbott built pressure for a period, something South Africa were unable to do for most of the first day. Even though it held little relevance in the context, it is a skill he could be called on to perform in future. "What I did this morning is how I've got myself into this side in the first place," Abbott said. "Yesterday wasn't what I am all about. This morning was a better reflection of what I can bring to this side. I have been told the lines I hit is good enough to keep guys at bay and I hope I can keep doing that."

Through that, he was part of one of the best passages of play on a curtailed day and admitted he enjoyed it. "That was a great period of Test cricket," he said. "Clarke was looking to pounce on anything remotely short and wide and there were a few balls where he tried to create something but got stopped at gully. He really put my skills put to the Test. There were a few moments where he smiled and nodded and it was just great competition."

It may also serve as evidence Abbott is at the front of queue to fill this role later on, which would be progress for a side that unsure of who its fourth seamer should be before this match. They have tried Ryan McLaren and Wayne Parnell and have thought about using Rory Kleinveldt, so much so that Abbott did not expect to play in this Test series. He was added to the squad only because Parnell was ruled out and considered himself nothing more than cover.

On Friday afternoon, Abbott was told he was going to have to be more than that. The news tied his stomach into a knot. "It kind of ruined my dinner plans. I didn't have much of an appetite," Abbott said. "The selectors made up their minds that they wanted four seamers and I had played a bit of four-day cricket so that weighed it nicely in my favour."

The same cannot be said of the position South Africa find themselves in now. Australia are closing in on a first-innings score of 500 and time has already been lost in the game. Only two outcomes seem likely and a South Africa win is not one of them.

It's a situation Abbott has not found himself in with the national team before. But he is taking heart from the fact that he has not seen Newlands this flat and if South Africa's line-up can put up a fight, he wants to believe anything is possible. "We have to bat well, just as they did," Abbott said. "As soon as we start thinking of a draw or any negative thoughts come in, we won't be on the right track. Knowing this team, we're still going to stay positive. There's a series up for grabs."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent