Originally for Dawn….this is the unedited version.
WACK! The ball met the middle of a swivelling blade and deposited itself beyond the empty stands on the mid-wicket fence at the University Oval, Dunedin. The bowler walking back to his mark, shoulders for once drooped in resignation at the audacity of the stroke, was Daniel Vettori. He was witnessing, according to the experts in the commentary box, one of the best young talents to have crossed this side of the Tasman Sea since a similarly curly haired teenager by the name of Sachin Tendulkar dazzled the hosts with his breathtaking array of strokes.
This 19-year old, hailed not from the Mumbai School of Batsmanship, but the bustling streets of Lahore. Umar Akmal then went on to score a rollicking 129 on this first outing in Pakistani whites. Today, a little over two years on from that sunny afternoon, the same Akmal finds himself flung out of the Test squad and the golden debut knock remains the solitary mark in the Test hundreds column.
A lot has been written and said about Umar’s temperament. Mohsin Khan, the current Pakistan cricket team coach has said that “the young batsman has to stop being selfish and learn to play the big innings.” Similarly, former coach Waqar Younis stressed how “Umar’s head was not in the right place” going in line with Basit Ali’s recent comments about how the younger Akmal needs “to work on his mentality, before hoping for a rebirth in the Test side.”
Clearly Umar has some fixing to do, but is the war raging within him the only problem? To answer this question think back to an Umar Akmal innings that you can recall off the top of your head. Do you remember his maiden one-day fifty against Sri Lanka where he dispatched the magician Muttiah Muralitharan back over his head, Inzi-style? How about the scintillating first-innings knock at the Boxing Day Test? Or the gutsy 44 from earlier this year that saw Pakistan end Australia’s 34-match World Cup winning streak.
Random innings that have come to signify the one thing common about the majority of Umar Akmal’s stays at the crease — overwhelming and undeniable pressures of having to keep afloat a sinking ship. When he first made his debut the fans rightly thought it was only a matter of time before Umar would get a nod to move up the order. Surely a batsman of his talent and bravado would be better suited to setting up an innings rather than having to constantly chase at its coattails. Who would have known the wait would prove to be endless.
Those who choose to constantly criticise his aggressive play and at times choice of “irresponsible” stroke play don’t realise the sheer burden and mental pressures that go with being a batsman. Rarely does any facet of cricket match up to the sheer concentration and mental grit required in crafting up a solid knock. It is a constant battle, not just against the bowlers, but more significantly with the self, scrutinising every little decision. It is in such testing times that keeping things simple and following one’s instinct become key to survival.
Of course what this also means is that batsmen, like wine, mature with age. Sehwag, the embodiment of simplicity, when modestly referring to his breathtaking knock a few days back agreed: “A batsman will only be able to score a double hundred after crossing the age of 30.” Pinpointing a set age of course is debatable, given the subjectivity of mental toughness gained through experience, but what the statement alludes to is the simple fact that one should not disregard the junior Akmal’s age. At 21 he is still very much part of the learning curve and developing his trade.
What the management, and yes the finger is squarely pointed at Waqar Younis’s time as coach, was supposed to do was give Umar Akmal the freedom to play his natural game. Provide the wonder-kid a license to follow his exuberance and panache, which is not available down at five or six. Surely, steering away from the unnecessary complexities of batting under pressure, and making things as uncluttered as possible for the team’s best batsman is the requirement of the time. Even Umar himself, cottoning on for it wasn’t rocket science, begged for “a promotion in the batting order” that would suit his style of play and accordingly result in him “scoring runs consistently”. His plea however, like the ones’ of so many infuriated fans before him, fell on deaf ears.
Umar unfortunately is not the only such case. Since his arrival over a year ago, Pakistan’s other young batting talent; Asad Shafiq has been obligingly taking hits like the team’s designated punching bag. Having been passed around like the photograph of a prospective groom, Shafiq still hasn’t found his slot in the team. The latest confidence-shattering move, in the development of who surely is a shoo-in number five batsman, is the added responsibility of opening the batting. Why should Shoaib Malik, currently averaging an abysmal four since his return, with three international hundreds opening the innings be asked to put his hand up when the young team scapegoat is there to be taken advantage of.
Pakistan sadly still lives off the Inzamam mentality, which despite it’s immeasurable tenacity to soak up pressure, was never able to sneak out from the comforts of it’s defensive approach. Coming lower down the order, he was always safe from the cheeky tricks of the newish ball and the hypothetical blame that would have come his way as a top order batsman. It is credit to his natural gift that he was able to conjure up the career he managed in the end, but one still has to wonder why Pakistan continues to be behind the eight ball.
The strategy, given Inzamam’s suspect footwork against the moving ball and conservative mental approach, might have made sense but does the young Akmal need to be religiously exposed to the same routine? Sure, Umar’s natural ability coupled with his knack of being able to play under pressure put him in the same bracket as the Prince of Multan, but to limit him to just that is doing the kid a world of injustice. An aggressive mental approach, and willingness to call the shots are qualities that set him apart and need to be properly channeled instead of harnessed.
One doesn’t even have to look outside Pakistan to find a suitable example. The great Javed Minadad, widely regarded as the county’s greatest batting product, with a similar hands on approach to batting, played his best when in charge of the innings from the start. Scoring at a staggering average of 55 and 60 (Tests and ODI respectively) his performance in at three was significantly better than any other position he played in. Most successful top order batsmen, the legendary Sir Vivian Richards included, had been promoted to their regular top order batting slots a year and a half into their careers. No such luck has come the way of Umar Akmal as optimists keep citing his young age and time remaining as valid excuses.
If Pakistan is to harbour any plans of building a competitive unit, worthy of contending in all conditions, fluency in their batting and lack of ability to set the pace remain the biggest chinks in the armour. The correct utilisation of Umar’s talent is key to fixing this major flaw and set Pakistan rolling on the right path. It is the laid-back approach that has plagued Pakistani batting over the years, even managing to diminish the glow of the exuberant 19-year old who took guard in Dunedin two winters ago. Let’s hope, for Pakistan cricket’s sake, the star within hasn’t completely burnt out.
Originally for Dawn