Until last week, Mohammad Abbas was an overlooked name in Pakistan cricket. But then at the Ageas Bowl, he reclaimed the spotlight with a remarkable performance for Hampshire against Middlesex in the LV= County Championship, to reignite his belief that his recent axing from the Test team will only be a temporary measure.
After picking up three cheap wickets in an innings victory over his former club Leicestershire in the opening round, Abbas confirmed his rhythm was right back where he wanted it to be against Middlesex, as he claimed a hat-trick inside seven balls.
The method he used was familiar: understated and deadly. A perfect line to a succession of batters, with just enough wobble off the seam to confound their defences. Max Holden was the first to go, to Abbas' fifth ball of the innings, as the left-hander poked on an off-stump line and deflected a thick edge to Joe Weatherley at third slip. Nick Gubbins was pinned on the crease one ball later, as Abbas jagged a leg-stump delivery into his knee-roll, then with the first ball of his second over, he grazed Stevie Eskinazi's outside edge as he pressed forward on off stump again.
Before the end of his third over, Abbas had picked up each of the first five wickets to fall as Middlesex crashed to 14 for 5, at which point his figures were an extraordinary 2.5-1-3-5. When Sam Robson fell for 18, with Middlesex 31 for 6, he briefly looked on course to claim all ten in the match but had to settle for the final innings figures of 6 for 11. Though Middlesex put up more of a fight in the follow-on, no one could get to grips with Abbas, as he finished with match figures of 9 for 39 in 31 overs.
The hat-trick, though, was the undoubted highlight. It was his first in an extensive 12-year first-class career, having previously failed to convert various opportunities in Pakistan, and Abbas believes that - with the national team still in need of a senior bowler to anchor their attack - his efforts for Hampshire could his route back to Test cricket, after admitting to a tail-off in recent international form.
"It great to have a hat-trick in my profile," Abbas told ESPNcricinfo. "These are kind of records every bowler wishes to have. I am happy that I will be able to decorate my career with this distinction.
"I previously had various hat-trick chances in my career but missed it. So when this opportunity arrived, I never wanted it to let it go. With all the experience, I had an idea that the batsman might expect the ball to seam in but I thought to bowl an outswinger and it worked. I am grateful for it, and happy about it."
Abbas, 31, is with Hampshire for an initial two months that covers as many as eight games, but his contract could be extended if the side reaches the league stage of the competition in August and September, which is very much on the cards after their flying start to the season.
However, Pakistan could well come calling once more on the evidence of his current form. They are scheduled to play three Tests against West Indies in July and August this year, and having picked up 15 wickets at 19.20 in his debut series in the Caribbean in 2017, Pakistan's chief selectors know plenty about his effectiveness in such conditions.
However, he was dropped after a drastic slump in his form in the past two years. At the end of Pakistan's tour of South Africa in January 2019, Abbas had picked up 66 wickets at 18.16 in 14 Tests, and at one stage he had the lowest average - 15.64 - for any bowler with 50-plus Test wickets in the last 100 years. Against Australia in Abu Dhabi, he became the first Pakistani bowler in 28 years to claim a ten-wicket haul, en route to a crushing 373-run win.
Since then, however, Abbas has added just 18 more wickets in nine Tests, at an average of 37.27 and a strike rate of 94.5. He believes, however, that a combination of injury and a lack of match practice due to the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to this down-turn, as well as a dip in form from Pakistan's attack as a whole.
"I really had a great start to my career but unfortunately I got a shoulder injury," Abbas said. "When you touch a peak and have a sudden fall you obviously need time to regain yourself. I did struggle after my return but then, in the second stint of my career, I lost the experienced bowlers at another end. Things started to break away. New management came in and I got to bowl with a fresh bowler, with Shaheen Afridi at his early stage. Musa [Khan], [Usman] Shinwari, Naseem Shah, they all were inexperienced and Yasir [Shah] also stopped taking wickets so it all comes down to me alone as a senior bowler.
"With all the experience, I had an idea that the batsman might expect the ball to seam in but I thought to bowl an outswinger and it worked"
Mohammad Abbas on his hat-trick delivery
"Bowlers also need partnerships similar to in batting," he added. "When I am bowling I usually develop chemistry and it takes time to find one. If one end is getting wickets, that is mainly because the other end is taking all the pressure of containing runs. One is attacking, the other is containing and controlling the flow of runs."
Given his central role in Pakistan's victory at Lord's in 2018, where he claimed four wickets in each innings to set the side up for a highly creditable 1-1 series draw, Abbas' returns in England last summer were a disappointment, as he finished with five wickets at 35.80 in the three Tests - albeit one of those was arguably the ball of the series, a peerless outswinger to bowl Ben Stokes for a duck at Old Trafford. He fared little better on the subsequent tour of New Zealand, with four wickets at 45.00. But he believes a bowler of his type is particularly hampered by the Covid restrictions on tour.
"In New Zealand, when I thought Afridi started to develop, we were suppressed with the 14-day quarantine," he said. "It basically was a killer for a sportsperson. For a bowler, it's about adjusting to the away conditions, understanding the length, and with pre-series prep, you get in your groove. But we were largely deprived so it was a missed opportunity for me to revive after injury."
Abbas' expanding strike rate started to become a concern for Pakistan as the wicket tally started to shrink, even though he did well to contain the runs on both tours. But he was dropped for the home series against South Africa and overlooked again for the ongoing Zimbabwe tour.
Pakistan left him to work on his game with the bowling coach Waqar Younis, who decided that his game didn't need any major tweaks after injury. But in his absence, Pakistan have had a drastic change in their bowling line-up, with Afridi now the leader of the pack with a host of new faces.
He accepts that a yard of extra pace might not hurt his chances of a recall, but also believes that his innate skill with a cricket ball will continue to stand him in good stead, particularly now that the Covid restrictions are limiting the use of saliva to help the ball swing.
"I know I still have a lot to offer and Pakistan needs an experienced bowler," Abbas said. "There is a lot of Test cricket coming up later this year and next year, and I think I can contribute. This ongoing County Championship is a big opportunity for me to revive myself. I know people often talk about my pace, and I had few words with Umar Gul, and he suggested me to bowl with the older ball as much as I can to generate more pace.
"So it's about getting into my method and helping me to bowl with extra pace. When you are not getting wickets as a player and as a team, your chips are down and your pace drops automatically. But once wickets are falling in your way, you start flying, and with every over you feel reinvigorated.
"This county season came at the right time and I am going make the most out of it. Also, this new rule not to use saliva is basically allowing the ball to rough up pretty early than usual… like only after 15 overs instead of after 30 overs so more opportunity to take upfront wickets."