Kyle Abbott became the latest on the list of South African debutants who arrived on the Test stage with a bang. A timid giant who earned his call-up thanks to some hard work on the domestic circuit, Abbott’s lived the dream for the last three days. By ANT SIMS.
Cricket can change lives very quickly. A split-second decision and you go from being cock of the walk to a feather duster. Or conversely, as South Africa’s debutants have shown over the last few years, you start on the fringes and end up leaving the cricket-watching world with jaws on the floor.
Kyle Abbott became the latest on the list of impressive debutants over the weekend, taking seven for 29 in the first innings - the second-best figures for a bowler on debut, following only Lance Klusener’s eight for 64.
He wasn’t even meant to be with the squad on Friday morning. Drafted in as cover for an injured Morne Morkel and scheduled to fly back to Durban on Thursday night to link up with his domestic team for their T20 campaign, Abbott never thought he would be out in Proteas’ Test whites on Friday.
His opportunity came when Jacques Kallis pulled up in training on Thursday, and he was told he would make his debut for South Africa on Friday.
"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.
"It's always in the back of your mind, playing Test cricket, but I didn't think it would come like this," he added. "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.
"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."
After a very successful four-day campaign, where Abbott picked up 49 wickets – the most in the tournament – he earned his call-up to the national team, but that he would actually play wasn’t decided until the very last minute. Upon hearing the news, his family drove up to Centurion from Empangeni and by Saturday night, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It’s a sport-mad family that supports its three sons in their various pursuits, be it cricket or Iron Man marathons; nobody is prouder than his folks.
The other person who is bursting with pride is his captain at the Dolphins, and one of his best friends off the field. Daryn Smit, who has played with Abbott since the 25-year-old made his FC debut almost three years ago, believes that his success lies in his doggedness, a never-say-die attitude that means you have to pull the ball from his hands to get him off the field and stop him bowling.
“I think the reason he has had such a successful season is because he’s thrived in the role of leading the attack for the Dolphins,” Smit told The Daily Maverick.
“Once he’s got that ball in his hand, it’s difficult to get it out. So often I’ll go up to him and ask whether he still has one more in him and he just keeps bowling. Sometimes I have had to tell him that I’ll need him later on and he just needs to hold on, but that responsibility of leading the Dolphins’ attack is something which I think has helped him carry himself in the way he has.
“He never shies away from responsibility or hard work and I think it’s paying off for him now,” Smit added.
Most of the players who made their Test debuts for South Africa over the last few years have done so seamlessly, making the step up from first class cricket to international cricket with ease. That speaks of the strength of the domestic structure in South Africa, and Smit also believes that playing alongside some of the best players in the world does make it easier for those who get thrown onto the world stage at the 11th hour.
“Having guys like Vernon (Philander) and Dale (Steyn) around you almost makes it easier for guys to make their debut. If you get thrown into the deep end alongside a whole lot of other rookies, it puts a lot of pressure on those guys making their debut, but when you step into a side with the number one and two Test bowlers in the world, it makes it easier to just do what you’re good at.”
Just like Vernon Philander, who made his debut just over a year ago, Abbott has proven that bowling quick doesn’t always equal success. He’s not the fastest, but he bowls a good line and he knows his game well. He knows how to extract extra bounce and how to fox batsmen into playing. If there is one area he can perhaps improve, it’s showing teeth to the players he is bowling against.
“If you look at Dale you can see that fire and that anger in his eyes and he will stare batsmen down. A lot of the time Kyle will bowl and just walk back to his mark, and I think that kind of aggression is something he can still get better with. I know that you won’t see that in a debutant at Test level, but as time goes on I’m sure he will learn to have a quiet word with the player he is bowling against.”
Dale Steyn presented Abbott with the match ball at the end of the second day - that same ball Abbott wasn’t too happy with. But just like South Africa’s spearhead said: a dog always chooses its owner. The ball certainly chose Abbott. DM
Photo: New Zealand's Derek de Boorder (R) runs as Kyle Abbott lines up a shy at the stumps during a warm up T20 cricket match against South Africa in Pietermaritzburg, December 18, 2012. REUTERS/Rogan Ward