An unexpected, dream debut for Abbott
Lance Klusener, Kyle Abbott's coach at the Dolphins, called him the night before his Test debut. As is Klusener's habit, he did not do much talking.
Instead it was Abbott who was wittering away and Klusener was responding in monosyllables, as he often does. "He was saying, 'Ok, ok, hmmm, ah, ok,' and then he ended the conversation with, 'Just keep it tight,'" Abbott told a packed press-conference at the end of the second day in Centurion. He did so much more and he knew it, which is why he ended the anecdote with a toothy grin to meet his audience's giggles.
As the first Dolphins player to represent the country since Imraan Khan played a solitary match in 2009, Abbott has put Kwa-Zulu Natal back on the cricketing map. He combined an accurate line just outside off stump with the ability to make the ball rear up from a good length to take 7 for 29 and become South Africa's second-most successful debutant.
The only South African to have performed better on his maiden Test appearance was Klusener, who took 8 for 64 against India. The former allrounder may have more to say on the phone tonight, but even if he keeps his comments to a minimum, there is little doubt Klusener will be proud.
He was the first person Abbott credited for the spike in his form over the last season, which took him to the top of the first-class wicket charts. "Lance has been unbelievable, I mean, what a guy," Abbott said. "He is not the kind of person to change too much technically but he has really helped me on the mental side of things and with being slightly more aggressive. He has given me the push I needed."
Abbott was a not a spitting Cobra - few rookies would be - but he showed his intent with the ball through discipline. Apart from his first delivery - a half volley on Azhar Ali's pads that was dispatched through midwicket - he rarely offered anything loose and only conceded one more four.
He was dangerous because he played on Pakistan's insecurities. Abbott's ability to extract extra bounce ensured the batsmen were always in two minds. They were obviously anticipating short-pitched bowling and stayed on the back foot. When they realised Abbott was not targeting that length, they could not get forward quickly enough to play him and edged deliveries instead.
A performance like that required certain maturity, often gained with time spent on the domestic circuit. Abbott has done that. Since missing out on the chance to represent SA Schools in 2004, because of a knee injury, he hovered around the provincial set-up and got his break four seasons later in 2008-09.
A regular at the Dolphins since 2010, Abbott was always thought to have potential. Even though he is not a tearaway quick and the speedgun remains around the 130 kph mark, he is skillful when he bowls, and as Vernon Philander has proved, that can be more than enough.
The last five days played out in dreamlike haze for him. Everything, from receiving his call-up to being included in the starting XI, has been a surprise and Abbott is enjoying every moment of it. His eyes lit up when he was asked about how he heard he would be part of the Test squad and words tumbled out.
"Andrew Hudson [convenor of selectors] phoned at me at 7 o'clock on Tuesday morning. I didn't have his number so I couldn't see who was calling and I was still asleep," Abbott said. "When I heard the phone ring, I just put it on silent and rolled over and carried on sleeping. When I woke up and listened to the message, I thought I had better call back."
Abbott is the latest on a long list of players, which includes Philander, Rory Kleinveldt, Faf du Plessis and Dean Elgar, who have been new to the squad in the last 14 months. The unit is used to welcoming fresh talent and Graeme Smith said they do all they can to make them feel welcome.
Abbott was greeted with the same warmth, although he was made aware he was only around to gain experience. He was comfortable with that. "It was just special being around these guys and seeing how the No. 1 team in the world prepares and does their thing," he said.
On Thursday afternoon, hours before the Centurion Test, Jacques Kallis decided to go for his first optional training session in years. "I was in the nets bowling and Gary came and stopped me and said Kallis has pulled up so I might be in," Abbott said. "I was thinking 'no way, he is a stalwart, he will make it fine.' Kallis went for a scan and I carried on. Then Gary came to me later in the afternoon and said I was in."
Abbot's mind began racing. The call-up had come much sooner than expected. "It's always in the back of your mind, playing Test cricket, but I didn't think it would come like this," he said. "Friedel de Wet [who played for South Africa against England in 2009-10 when Dale Steyn was injured] told me to always give 100% and expect nothing in return." That's what Abbot believed until Thursday afternoon.
Everything changed. He was going to play a Test and the thought overwhelmed him. The feeling lasted longer because South Africa chose to bat and Abbott was not needed for the entire first day. "I haven't got any sleep over the last two days," he said. "This press conference is the first time my hands aren't sweating and my stomach is not a knot."
Abbott was nervous about everything he did. When he stood up to bat, he had a mishap similar to Faf du Plessis on debut in Adelaide. Du Plessis' shoelace had come undone and he almost fell down the stairs. Abbott fell through the gap in the chair as he got up to walk to the crease. "I've got a huge graze down my leg," he said.
The impression he gave was of a serious and calm person, who compiled runs sedately. "He didn't show any nerves with bat in hand," AB de Villiers said. And he definitely showed none with the ball.
Abbott came on in the 18th over, with Pakistan going fairly steadily. Dale Steyn, Philander and Kleinveldt had tied things up and Abbott was required to do what Klusener had instructed him to. Instead, he took wickets. And wickets. And wickets. Until he had collected seven, the same number as Marchant de Lange on debut.
"It was all about building pressure the whole day," Abbott said. "The other seamers bowled just as well. It could have been anyone's day out there and I was lucky it was me." That was not mere bashfulness; Abbott had made a point.
Steyn and Philander's role was obvious because of the absence of Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis, and even Kleinveldt bowled well though his figures did him no justice. In his first spell, Kleinveldt was undoubtedly the standout bowler. Abbott outdid everyone, and Smith managed him as only an experienced leader could do. "Graeme kept asking 'Are you done?' and the word 'no' just kept coming out of my mouth," he said. Adrenaline and determination combined as Abbott bowled himself into a small part of history.
He has a souvenir to show for it. As Abbott left the field, Steyn presented him with the match ball. "Dale was awesome," Abbott said, for the first time showing a bit of hero-worship. "He stood next to me for most of that spell and just told me to keep doing it." If he does, South Africa can be guaranteed another stellar quick in their ranks. For now, Abbott's performance has created more competition for places, which can only be healthy as South Africa build their legacy.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent