zhar Mahmood gave a beautifully simple explanation during the first Test of what Mohammad Abbas seeks to do with a cricket ball, a match Pakistan appeared to have under control only for England to swipe the win from under their noses.
“He might be 80mph but his ‘off the pitch’ is really quick,” the former Pakistan all-rounder told Test Match Special. “It’s the wrist behind the ball. It’s kissing [the pitch]. You stand next to the river and throw the stone, sometimes it goes in and sometimes it skips. Wasim Akram used to do it. There’s no dying of the pace [because of the] back spin.”
It ignores physics to suggest a ball gathers speed off the pitch but, as Azhar says, the 80mph delivery that skims like a stone is about losing less pace, relatively, than the quicker yet thudding ball. It challenges a batsman’s timing while the wobbled seam, deviation from which threatens both edges and the pads, adds to the peril.
None of this is new or uncommon. Tim Murtagh and Darren Stevens are outstanding exponents among a good number in the county game. Think Tom Cartwright back in the day. Pakistan have had many too, with the silken wrist of Mohammad Asif making him arguably the best at getting ‘nip’ this way, before his self-inflicted demise.
For Abbas it brings Test wickets at a shade under 21 and why he hoovered up 79 in 19 matches during two seasons at Leicestershire. In Manchester it had Dom Sibley and Rory Burns pinned lbw once apiece across the two innings and Ben Stokes bowled by a subsequently viral corker on the second evening.
Thus regardless of where he went with the older ball during the run chase, the 31-year-old Abbas and the box-fresh Dukes remain the task at hand for England’s openers when the series resumes in Southampton on Thursday. Sibley, who laid a platform for the chase with 36 over two and a half hours, will stay adaptable.
“I definitely made a big effort to try and get further out of my crease to Abbas [second innings] and try to negate his main weapon of nipping the ball back into my pads,” said Sibley, before England trained at the Rose Bowl on Tuesday. “I have played against him a few times in county cricket [making a century in 2018] and batted normally. But in the second innings on that wicket I needed to get further out of my crease and I will need to adapt to this wicket here.
“I was comfortable [switching]. In county cricket I have batted outside my crease to certain bowlers and triggered forward. I was chatting with [the batting coach] Graham Thorpe and a few of the other batters – we are always discussing what threat they pose and how best to deal with that.
“The thing I am learning about Test cricket is that you’ve got to keep moving forward, trying to adapt and stay one step ahead. That comes from chatting to other people and trying to glean as much knowledge as possible.”
Sibley’s most telling intervention was possibly a case of learning from others too. His run-out of Asad Shafiq on day three, which broke a blossoming stand of 38 as England turned the tide, was an athletic pick and throw running from point by a cricketer inspired to lose 12kg during lockdown after admiring the fitness of Stokes.
“Maybe not,” replied Sibley when asked whether his old self would have pulled it off. “It was quite a key moment. I am feeling a little bit lighter on my feet. It’s good, for sure. Losing the weight has been nice.
“Although … I did feel a bit more tired after my hundred in the second Test against West Indies. I think that was probably my body getting used to batting with a bit less weight on me. [But] It’s definitely something I want to keep improving.
“If I hit a low score I’ll try and get some [fitness work] done so that I don’t sit around and have tea and biscuits all day watching the other boys get runs. That’s the great thing about the environment, there’s always someone working hard. Even if you have failed as a batter in the day, you can try and get something out of the rest of it.”
No Stokes, heading to New Zealand for family reasons, means England are forced into one change but others may follow too. Zak Crawley looks set to return at No 3, allowing Joe Root to drop down to his preferred No 4, and it may be that the captain sticks with five bowlers by adding an extra all‑rounder in Sam Curran.
Root, who has chosen his XIs late this summer, has to decide which seamer makes way – Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad must surely be safe unless cooked – and whether he also wants Mark Wood to freshen up the pace berth. Dom Bess, the victim of Jos Buttler’s drops behind the wicket, will be hoping thoughts don’t turn to Jack Leach, too.