AFTER Pakistani bowlers received a 500-run thrashing from English batsmen on the first day of the opening Test in Rawalpindi, the home side’s coach Saqlain Mushtaq was asked to explain his choice to debut leg-spinner Zahid Mahmood over his spin mate, Abrar Ahmed.
“Justice”, according to Saqlain, was the reason why Abrar couldn’t make the cut. For the Pakistan coach, Zahid had spent more time with the Pakistan Test squad ahead of the three-match series and hence deserved a debut ahead of his teammate from Sindh.
It was baffling how Saqlain — once a world-class spinner himself — seemed to ignore Abrar’s show of form in the recently concluded Quaid-i-Azam Trophy, Pakistan’s premier first-class competition.
The 24-year-old Abrar had earned his place on the Pakistan roster after bamboozling batters across the country to bag a mind-blowing 43 wickets in just seven outings in the Quaid Trophy, striking at an average of less than 22.
Justice, though, was perhaps truly served when Zahid was plundered by the England batters for 235 runs in the first innings of the Rawalpindi Test. Karma intervened swiftly, however, when Abrar — who was finally and rightfully awarded a Test cap ahead of the second game in Multan on Friday — went on to take seven wickets on his debut.
But this was no ordinary seven-scalp haul; the bespectacled “mystery” spinner broke through the England line-up after opening his Test career with a googly that castled opener Zak Crawley’s off-stump in picture-perfect style.
By lunch, Abrar had already recorded his maiden five-wicket haul, becoming the 13th Pakistani bowler to do so on debut.
While England’s relentlessly (read carelessly) attacking style of play may have gifted Abrar an extra wicket or two, there was no denying that he was causing serious problems for the visitors.
England opener Ben Duckett — whose habitual reverse-sweeping eventually allowed Abrar to trap him leg-before — claimed his team-mates did not find anything “mysterious” about the Karachi-born spinner and that they had no problems reading him.
But the look on skipper Ben Stokes’ face, when Abrar bowled him through the gate, told another story.
Abrar’s delivery to the talismanic left-hander left him jaw-dropped as Stokes took a moment on the crease to make sense of how the ball spun after pitching around leg-stump to go on and hit off.
Similarly, Stokes’ predecessor Joe Root, one of the world’s best batters, found himself stranded on his backfoot as another Abrar googly struck his pads plumb.
England will take the same, flamboyant approach when they come back to bat in the second innings, Duckett said in his post-match comments, something that just might work in Abrar’s favour. If it does, and say, Abrar goes on to record 10 wickets in a match, it won’t be something he has not dreamed of since his early days as a teenage cricketer.
At 15, Abrar demanded his friends to call him “superstar” after he took five wickets with his beguiling spin in a club match. A product of the famed Rashif Latif Cricket Academy in Karachi, Abrar has always had a knack of making high claims, but he has managed to manifest his dreams.
The spinner, like many of his type, was touted as a white ball-only sensation, but he promised his mates in the Sindh team that he would prove himself to be equally capable with the red cherry, a promise he fulfilled in this year’s Quaid Trophy.
This thirst for wickets, the immense urge to knock out the opponent, makes Abrar all the more special. The type of special that Pakistan need, to stand with their chins up against England’s “Bazball” philosophy, which looks to burden the opponent through constantly attacking cricket.
Abrar is of the type that does justice to Pakistan’s reputation of producing something better than normal.
Nicknamed “Harry Potter” by his friends because he wears glasses and has a wizard’s way with the ball, Abrar may well go far as a player for team Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2022