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Match Analysis

The Abrar Ahmed school of wizardry: come for the mystery, stay for the legspin

Affectionately known as "Harry Potter" in domestic circles, Pakistan's newest star bamboozled England with his skill and variations

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Seven wickets on Test debut: not a bad start for Abrar Ahmed  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Seven wickets on Test debut: not a bad start for Abrar Ahmed  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Abrar Ahmed was supposed to be a mystery spinner, but in Rawalpindi, the only mystery surrounding him was why he wasn't in the team, making his debut ahead of Zahid Mehmood.
Having led the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy wickets chart over the season, Abrar had kept Mahmood out of the Sindh side. Given he'd taken a full 30 more wickets at an average 24 runs superior to Mahmood, it seemed natural to assume he was ahead in the national pecking order, too. Even Abrar said he expected to play in Rawalpindi. But Saqlain Mushtaq appears to believe in justice as much as he believes in qudrat, and hey ho, in came Mahmood.
With the layers of security around Multan Cricket Ground, it's a hard place to get in on a Test match day, but that wouldn't stop Abrar this time. Following the scathing criticism the Rawalpindi surface received, including from PCB chairman Ramiz Raja, Pakistan had prepared what they believed to be a turning wicket. That meant "Harry Potter", as the bespectacled 24-year-old is affectionately known within his domestic side, was handed his cap, and swiftly Sorted into the Pakistan side.
Pakistan have burned their way through enough spinners in their search for a Yasir Shah replacement, but repeatedly come up dry. The fast bowling was crocked to such a degree Pakistan's entire pace contingent this Test comprised of medium pacer Mohammad Ali and seam-bowling allrounder Faheem Ashraf. For legspin company, he had Mehmood, the man who'd registered the worst figures for a debutant in Test history last week, and spin allrounder Mohammad Nawaz.
So when he stood at the top of his mark at the start of the ninth over, this shy, endearingly dorky debutant found himself saddled under more weight than young debutants might normally be expected to bear. Zak Crawley had smashed 172 off 159 balls in Rawalpindi - spin had disappeared for an undefeated 41 off 39 across both innings. The first ball, looped up gently outside off, was smashed through the cover fielder, and England's intentions were clear.
Abrar has borne greater pressure than this, though, quite literally. A stress fracture in his lower back saw him vanish from the cricketing landscape altogether in 2018 for more than a year. The previous year, he got his big break in white-ball cricket, with Karachi Kings drafting him in, then a baby-faced 18-year old suddenly pitted against Eoin Morgan in full flow. He would keep him quiet, impress Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, and excite Pakistan head coach Mickey Arthur.
Five years later, reinvented as a red-ball specialist with a stellar Quaid-e-Azam Trophy record behind him, Abrar recognises an opportunity when he sees one. Crawley may be on the attack, but Abrar's not one for shirking, either. Legspinners may carry a reputation for profligacy, and young mystery spinners especially so, but Abrar lands every ball that over on length, starving Crawley of a release shot. The coup de grace comes off the fifth ball, when the batter, drawn into an expansive lunge, realises what Abrar's mystery's all about. A sideways carrom flick of the ring finger spins the ball back in, the batter only realising what happened while the ball sneaks through the bat-pad gap. The off stump is disturbed, and Abrar's back doing what he's done all season, bossing a first-class match at home.
But the bent finger, the flick, the obsessive focus on the release point doesn't take away from the reliability of Abrar's stock ball. Early on in his career, the variations he possessed could be evocative of a film producer with an oversized budget, so keen on spending it all on extravagant extraneous projects they forget about the value of a solid plot. Throughout the innings here, Abrar's plotting was central to his performance, liberated by his variations rather than chained to them.
"At the start of my career, I used to be a complete mystery spinner, but I've focused more on my legspin of late," Abrar explained. "My grip makes it seem like I'm a mystery spinner, but I like play around with the grip of the ball and the way I hold it on the seam."
Unlike most domestic batters, though, England took the attack to him. Ollie Pope reverse swept his first ball for four, and that second wicket partnership saw enough sweeps and reverse sweeps from both batters to discombobulate most spinners. Abrar wasn't spared punishment, going for 33 in four overs in this period, but he wouldn't back away from the length that has served him on grounds like these; 74 off 132 landed on a length. He was aware the sweep came laden with risk, and risk is the currency a spinner like Abrar trades in.
"A sideways carrom flick of the ring finger spins the ball back in, the batter only realising what happened while the ball sneaks through the bat-pad gap. The off stump is disturbed, and Abrar's back doing what he's done all season, bossing a first-class match at home"
It was that delivery which brought about Duckett's dismissal, one sweep too many catching him out. Soon after Abrar was running riot, but not in the unconventional way the mystery spinner tag might suggest. While Crawley's team-mates were put on notice by that dismissal, Abrar was doing what any quality legspinner might on a surface like this, landing it on length in line with the stumps. Five of his seven wickets fell to regular length balls that turned conventionally, and as England watched for the mystery, Abrar focused on the legspin.
Except, you know, when he didn't. Ben Stokes thought he'd got the hang of this geeky young upstart who'd gutted his side's top order, and smashed a six and a four over his head after lunch. Abrar threw in a wrong'un that clipped the bat, but it had landed outside leg stump. Pakistan reviewed frivolously, and the danger had passed.
Or so the England captain thought. That was just a feint, but the charge was yet to come with what he called his favourite wicket. As Stokes lunged forward to defend a purportedly harmless delivery that landed outside leg, the ball spat up like a cobra leaving its nest, and was just as deadly. The ball zipped past the outside edge, Stokes' open-mouthed look of surprise a greater compliment than anything the team-mates that mobbed him could have said. Duckett would later call him "a legspinner with an googly, if I'm being really honest", but if the other Ben had been sat in the press conference room, he might have been even more effusive, at least about the latter skill.
The first seven fell to him, and all of a sudden, record books were being dusted off, and ESPNcricinfo's Statsguru stood primed to make another entry. Having sat out in Rawalpindi, Abrar was cleaning up in Multan. It seemed he was destined for all ten at that stage, but the man who'd controversially taken his spot in the first Test would show his less fashionable brand of legspin could take wickets, too, Mahmood mopping up the final three.
It was arguably no less than he deserved on an afternoon where Abrar was guaranteed the limelight. Or the way Saqlain might put it, justice won out over qudrat this time around.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000