<
>

Abbott cuts lonely figure as the future swirls around him

Kyle Abbott led South Africa onto the field for what could be his final innings as a Test cricketer AFP

Kyle Abbott was the first man onto the field as Sri Lanka's second innings began. Would it be for the last time?

Speculation over Abbott's future - ESPNcricinfo revealed that Abbott has signed a Kolpak deal with Hampshire and is set to retire from international cricket to honour it - has received far more attention than anything that has happened on the field in the last two days, mostly because it has come as such a surprise.

It's well known that many South African cricketers are disenchanted with their currency and their current situation, and are interested in furthering their careers in the United Kingdom before Brexit stops them. The issue has been explored enough times not to necessitate another voyage of discovery as to their reasons. But Abbott? Right now? Say it ain't so!

But it looks increasingly likely that Abbott's fate may already be sealed. Asked if it will be sad if Abbott goes, Kagiso Rabada today replied:

"Sad, yes. Ever since I came into the team, Kyle has been a great bowler and also a good person. He is just a genuine guy. You can easily get along with him. It will be sad to see him go."

In April 2015, when Abbott was left out of the World Cup semi-final despite being on a hot streak for, shall we say, not-entirely-cricketing reasons, it would have made sense for him to leave. Heck, as recently as two months ago, when he carrying drinks in Perth, it would have made sense. But now, in the wake of Dale Steyn's shoulder injury and his own starring role in Australia, he has an opportunity at a long run in the team. Less than a week ago, Abbott spoke about how much it means to him to see the hard work he has put in over a long period finally paying off and how excited he is for the future of this team. Could it really be a team he is willing to leave behind?

And if it is, imagine having to be part of that team now. The team that discovered Abbott was considering ditching them through a news report because not even their own cricket board knew. The captain, who needs to trust Abbott to play according to the plans they would have made together, didn't know. The person who opens the bowling with him from the other end didn't know, and said as much. "That's a situation between him and Cricket South Africa to sort out. It's for Cricket South Africa to comment on that," Vernon Philander said at the end of the second day, when the news first broke. The person he sits next to in the change-room didn't know.

"Kyle has been a great bowler and also a good person. He is just a genuine guy. You can easily get along with him. It will be sad to see him go." Kagiso Rabada

There must be some sense of surprise, maybe even suspicion, among them. Some may be wondering if they would be tempted to make the same decision themselves. Some may look around and wonder how many others in that dressing room are already in the process of doing the same thing. But somehow none of that spilled onto the field.

As Abbott ambled through his warm-ups and then made his way to the top of his mark, as the field settled into their spots and the Sri Lankan batsmen got ready for another few sessions of survival, it was as though nothing else was happening, except for this match and that moment.

It turned out not to be one for the ages. Coming from around the wicket, Abbott sent his first ball wide and Dimuth Karunaratne didn't have to play. It wasn't the ideal way to begin your last innings as an international.

Abbott adjusted with his very next ball, which nipped back to sneak past the off stump. He was accurate for most of the rest of the innings, as he had been in the first when his eight overs cost nine runs. That is the value Abbott brings to this side, a value they may be enjoying for the last time. Good things may need to come to an end, but so soon?

Abbott might also be wondering that. This is his moment in Test cricket and he may have let it slip by misjudging how important he would become. But South Africa are also to blame for Abbott feeling so isolated that he went in search of something else.

Despite being consistent every time he was called up, he played too infrequently to feel secure. Some of it could not be helped - when Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel are fit, they remain automatic picks and South Africa cannot field an XI with five quicks, but some room should have been made for Abbott along the way. He should have played - perhaps in the Tests against New Zealand in August, perhaps in more ODIs. Perhaps he just needed a few more guarantees. It seems South Africa want to provide them now, even if it may be too late.

CSA met with Abbott's agent on Wednesday. What they discussed will only be revealed at the end of the match but several sources said they believed CSA were trying to come up with an offer that could change Abbott's mind. Whether any changes can actually be implemented is not yet known.

South Africa's selectors are meeting tonight to decide the squad for the third Test and the ODIs, without clarity over Abbott's future. If they know he is going, but only at the end of either the third Test or the home summer, will they still consider him? Or will they see him as taking the place of a player who can be part of longer-term plans? If they had known of Abbott's intention, would have they picked him for the first two Tests at all?

Whatever happens, what is certain is that today was not Abbott's last as an international. With six wickets still to get, there is more to do tomorrow.