Durban – Shortly after Kyle Abbott was called up to the Proteas Test squad for the third Test against Pakistan last week, I received a phone call from a colleague: “Compo, I don’t know anything about Abbott, won’t you cc some background to me when you write your story?”
It’s the kind of thing cricket writers routinely do in this game and it was no surprise that the big man from Empangeni was still flying below the radar at that time, despite becoming the leading wicket-taker in domestic first-class cricket with 49 scalps. But his team, the Dolphins, had been in a slump since his first-class debut in February 2009, and Abbott’s career path hadn’t sparked much of a blaze in the cricketing firmament – even in Durban. That was until Lance Klusener took over from Graham Ford as coach towards the end of last season.
Klusener and Abbott both come from Zululand, and they share an understanding (and a fishing rod). The former Proteas all-rounder was never one to couch his language in polite euphemisms and he didn’t hesitate to “kick butt” when he started working with his under-achieving charges.
Abbott credits Klusener with providing the “mental shift” he needed to get to the next stage.
“Lance didn’t beat around the bush,” the 25-year-old said this week after his heroics in Centurion. “He said to me: ‘Listen, if you want to play international cricket this is how we’re going to go about it’.
“And I’ve trusted him. I mean, who wouldn’t? He’s been there and done it. He knows how to get to the top and he knows how to stay there. I just followed his word, and it’s paid dividends, hasn’t it?”
What happened, exactly? “He helped me fashion a whole new self-confidence about my game,” Abbott replied. “It was about putting my hand up, getting noticed and ‘catching the wind’ as Lance likes to call it. It was all about learning how to batter down the door.”
It wasn’t surprising, then, that the first guy he phoned after his Man of the Match performance was Klusener. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘I’ve got you covered’,” Abbott laughed. For those with a nose for stats that translates into Klusener’s recognition that his record Test debut return of 8/64 against India in Kolkata in 1996/7 still held up against Abbott’s 7/29 against Pakistan.
It was also a directive for the pace bowler to keep his feet firmly on the ground, an imperative he’s in no danger of disobeying.
“There were a few jokes flying around that Test cricket must be pretty easy for me,” Abbott recalled with a smile, “but jeez, you can’t take something like that for granted. I’ll hang on to the last few days for the rest of my life. If I ever get another seven-for, it’s going to be helluva hard work!”
All that glory still seemed a distant dream when I saw Abbott at Kingsmead on Tuesday last week. He’d been called up as cover to the national squad because of Morné Morkel’s hamstring injury but it had been made clear to him that he was second in line behind Rory Kleinveldt in terms of actually playing. At that stage, Abbott was simply looking forward to sharing the same air as Dale Steyn and (bowling coach) Allan Donald and taking in a bit of the dressing-room vibe.
The expectation was that Abbott would spend Wednesday and Thursday bowling in the SuperSport Park nets before returning to Kingsmead to play in the Dolphins’ T20 match against the Lions on Friday.
And then it happened. “There was an optional practice on Thursday morning. Apparently Jacques Kallis never goes to optional practices, but he did that day and he tweaked a calf muscle while having a bowl. He went for a scan and later on Gary Kirsten gave me a call ...”
You still didn’t believe it? “Not really, even when I woke up on Test day. It gradually began to sink in as we approached the ground in the bus and then got into the change-room.”
Watching Abbott bowl last Saturday, you’d never think he was making his debut. He just fitted right in. There was a brief moment of uncertainty when his first ball was clipped to long leg for four, but that soon changed when, with the last ball of his first over, Pakistan opener Mohammad Hafeez failed to get over a delivery that bounced a little more than expected, edging a catch to Dean Elgar in the gully.
“It was a little bit nerve-wracking because the catch went upstairs (to the third umpire) and it took a while. They had to check for a no-ball as well. But Dean wouldn’t have claimed the catch if he wasn’t confident he’d taken it.”
The relief was palpable, and also the sense he now belonged, that he had contributed. Natural butterflies apart, Abbott explained just why he looked as if he had fitted in seamlessly. “I’d had a nice chat with Allan, and he told me how I needed to construct my first spell, how I needed to stamp my authority on the game. Fortunately, what they wanted was how I bowl for the Dolphins: running in, hitting the deck hard, throwing in the occasional bouncer.”
Donald’s pep talk about constructing a spell also helped Abbott to look forward after he picked up two of the Pakistani top-order. “I was now thinking about getting wickets three, four and five. It helped that Dale was in my ear, telling me that this was my opportunity. Everything came together very nicely.”
But getting seven wickets? “I could hardly believe it, even when I watched the highlights in my hotel room afterwards,” Abbott admitted.
Not surprisingly, he was hugely impressed by the team setup. “The Proteas’ team culture is unbelievable. In the last 18 months while Gary has been in the job, he said to me that there’s been no disciplinary issues, no clashes, hardly any raising of voices. The guys have been so mature and professional about the way they’ve gone about their business.
“That really showed when I joined up with them. When I got there on Wednesday afternoon, every senior player shook my hand and said howzit, congratulations, if you need anything come and ask me. That really put me at ease. The guys really welcomed me and made me feel like I’d been there for ever.”
On Friday, weather permitting, the dream continues with Abbott likely to make his T20 debut in front of his home fans, and he’s also been called up to the ODI squad.
Looking back to his days after leaving Kearsney College, Abbott recalled the moments when he began to take cricket seriously. “I was playing club cricket in Somerset and I told (former England bowler) Andy Caddick that I was thinking of returning home to play cricket. Our chat provided me with the first reality check ... up until then I’d just been drifting along.
“Then, when I got back, Graham Ford told me cricket really was a career path. I don’t like studying, I never have. I thought to myself that I’d better give it a real crack. The harder I train outdoors, the less time I’d need to spend behind a desk!”
“Jimmy” (a nickname he received from former Dolphin Jon Kent) is now looking a likely bet to continue his outdoor life for a good few years to come, and who knows what distinguished fresh-air locations he may visit.