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'Each ball is different in T20'

Two years on from his international retirement, Kyle Abbott is well settled in his freelance life as a yorker specialist who also has many other tricks up his sleeve

Deivarayan Muthu
"Death bowling is proactive and reactive. You need to be very quick on your feet and change your plans"  •  Getty Images

"Death bowling is proactive and reactive. You need to be very quick on your feet and change your plans"  •  Getty Images

Kyle Abbott bowled a perfectly pitched ball that seamed away to find the outside edge of Kusal Perera's bat in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final. It was the wicket that set South Africa up for the thrilling semi-final against New Zealand, but Abbott didn't get to play that match. Vernon Philander returned to the side for the crunch game and Abbott was once again relegated to the sidelines.
Tired of playing replacement man for four years, Abbott gave up his international career and signed a Kolpak deal with Hampshire in 2017. You remember the teary press conference.
Nearly three years after being benched by South Africa in the World Cup in New Zealand, Abbott is back in the country, this time as a "carefree" freelancer, helping Northern Knights to the Super Smash T20 final. He's among Knights' most economical bowlers this season and has carried the load when Mitchell Santner has been away playing for New Zealand and Anton Devcich for Sydney Thunder.
More importantly, Abbott is feeling at home away from home, surfing in Mount Maunganui, reeling in kingfish, and catching up with his old schoolmate Chad Bowes, who was on the fringes of the Dolphins side when Abbott was playing for them and now represents Canterbury in New Zealand domestic cricket. Abbott has also watched on TV as his best friend David Miller has captained South Africa.
"David and I go back a very long time. It's a bit like you get Abbott, you get Miller for free," he quips. "Watching him captain South Africa is special and I want to play under him… but yeah, very happy for him. I don't know how to describe our friendship."
Abbott's great South African dream is over, but he is at peace with himself as he travels the world to play for Hampshire, Khulna Titans, Lahore Qalandars, Durban Heat and now Northern Knights. He is still enjoying himself - reeling batsmen in on the field and fish off it.
The stint with Knights came from out of nowhere. After enjoying a homecoming of sorts in the inaugural Mzansi Super League, where he was Durban's top wicket-taker, Abbott had planned to put his feet up and enjoy Christmas when Knights called him up as a replacement for Chris Jordan, who joined Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash League.
Abbott has established himself as a yorker specialist - he can nail the stumps as well as spear it wider - an enviable skill honed by playing T20 cricket around the world. This time last year, according to CricViz, Abbott was the second most prolific yorker bowler in T20, behind only Lasith Malinga.
On the smaller grounds and flatter pitches of New Zealand, Abbott has moved the lines of his yorkers much wider to deny batsmen the access to hit him down the ground.
"A lot of people ask me about being the death bowler and I look back at playing 130-odd T20s. Pressure is something you get used to," Abbott says. "What I've figured out over the last year or so is, everyone is pretty good at hitting straight down the ground now, so anything full at the stumps is in the wheelhouse, as we call it. Taking all the power away is what I'm trying to achieve. It's a wide yorker or a slower ball."
What if somebody jumps across off and flips the ball away over short fine leg - like, say, Central Districts batsman Tom Bruce, who has shown 360-degree skills this Super Smash? Abbott has a plan B.
"Obviously when it comes to batsmen who are good at playing behind the wicket and lap you both ways, you might instead bowl short and make them play shots they are not used to," he says. "All the research is usually done beforehand, or maybe [I'll try] double-bluffing them and bowling the yorker.
"Death bowling is proactive and reactive and depends on the situation of the game. The longer I've played T20s, I've realised each ball is different. Sometimes you plan with the captain but it might not go your way in the match. You need to be very quick on your feet and change your plans.
"I've been extremely fortunate to work with Alfonso Thomas [Khulna Titans], Kyle Mills [Lahore Qalandars], Albie Morkel [Durban Heat]. You pick up things from different people around you and figure out what works for you."
Abbott's assortment of yorkers and slower cutters were central to Knights defending 152 against Canterbury in a 16-overs-a-side game at Seddon Park earlier this season.
The yorker has also served him well of late in first-class cricket. He hit the blockhole and bowled Worcestershire's Josh Tongue in September last year, en route to his maiden hat-trick in professional cricket. And he celebrated the landmark with a familiar face.
"I played with Dale [Steyn] and it was good being back playing and surfing with him. That was pretty cool," Abbott says. "He was and will always be one of South Africa's greats. To have him and Hashim [Amla] in county cricket passing on knowledge to some of the younger guys… everyone was taken aback by how humble they were. To have two of my closest friends away from home was pretty special."
Abbott has shed all the baggage he carried from his decision to quit playing for South Africa and has found a new home with Northern Knights. They have bossed the league stages and are now one step away from becoming only the second team after Auckland Aces to defend a New Zealand domestic T20 title.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo