Archive for March, 2014

Keeping Him At Six

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Umar Akmal- Forever the Pariah in this generation of Pakistani bastsmen

About two and a half years ago I wrote this piece on Umar Akmal, pleading the case, as many have done over the years, on his promotion up the order. That wish was never granted and after a period of being dropped from all formats Pakistan’s brightest current batting talent finds himself in the side as wicketkeeper! Because you know, it only made sense that one of the weakest batting sides in the world couldn’t seem to find a specialist slot for their best batsman. Any way the point of this post is not to bitch and moan (or at least keep it to a minimum), but to once again plead to the management. Only this time the exact opposite. “Let him now remain at six. It’s too late now”.

This request is not because I have finally seen the light and accept that he deserves to bat lower down, many of his “fans” have fallen prey to this, but keeping the 2015 WC in sight this seems the best way forward.

Umar Akmal was never a No.6 batsman. There is a special breed of ODI batsmen that fit that billing. You need to remain cool under all circumstances. You need to be confident in your abilities but not so much so as to be over the top (being over-the-top can come in handy sometimes for batsmen batting higher up). And most importantly you need to possess the ability to play a three-fold game. In degrees of importance these are, attack (Lala style hitting); measured aggressiveness (Miandad style single-doubles)”; and complete defense (comes most into play when you have to maneuver strike in close finishes batting with the tail). Dhoni is the only batsman who comes close to mastering all three. The only one he might fall short off is complete mastery of the tuk-tuk, but since that is the least important of the lot he is in my books the best No.6 ODI batsman of all time.

Now Umar Akmal possesses very few of these traits. Being calm and collected in tense situations is not his forte, his reflex is to seek refuge in the aggressive nature that is inherent to him, and he lets his emotions feed his stroke play. He definitely belongs to the conceited and cocky school of batsmanship; I don’t think this leaves any room for misinterpretation in this regard. And in the last most essential criteria he completely fails in the defense (tuk-tuk) category, which means he will rarely be able to bat strategically with the No.10s and 11s of the world, struggling to see games off till the very end.

Despite all these draw backs he has a staggering record at the position, only coming a close second to Dhoni. To Dhoni! Best ever to have played at the position. Better than the Bevans and Husseys off the world. So good that he gives top-order specialists like Kohli, Amla, AB and Sanga a good run for their money when contending for best current ODI batsman. In fact Umar Akmal even one-ups Dhoni in the 100s metric hit from the No.6 slot. That’s a monumental achievement for someone whose natural game and mindset isn’t even close to being ideal for the position. It’s gold for someone who has been beaten and molded into the position while being asked to also take on the immense responsibility of donning the wicket keeper’s gloves. This is a tribute purely to the magnitude of talent and range he possesses as a batsman and its ability to over shadow all those obstacles.

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The saddest part is that the team managements of past and present were all aware of this  fact. Everybody in the Pakistan setup knew how talented this kid was, realized that he was their best future prospect, were fully aware of how mediocre the other top to middle order options were at the time, and yet decided to use him like a rag doll.

The India Asia Cup game was a perfect example of this awareness and exploitative behavior. I don’t know whose call it precisely was to send Umar Akmal up the order, but it was highly ill-thought out and born out of cowardice. When the pressure was on the management, out of nowhere decided to send in Umar Akmal in the most intense situation imaginable, in the biggest ODI Pakistan had played in over a year. The promotion acknowledged that deep down the management realize he is a much better batsman than the rest. But the injustice is that he is allowed such “luxury” only in these sort of situations. The guy had just stroked two of his best knocks at No.6, he is well acclimatized to that position. Sohaib, the guy Umar replaced, is a pretty decent bat whose game is fully capable of handling spin, as he showed during the game as well. But they decided on Umar. Why? Because when insecurity creeps in and doubt takes over the only place to seek assurance is in fact. And the fact is Umar Akmal has always been our best option in ODIs and should have been batting in the top 4 since the start. The Pakistani management have invested absolutely nothing in him, and exploited him at every opportunity presented, just like they exploited him against India days ago.

His game currently is, sadly, that of a lower order batsman. Years of forced duty in the doldrums of the batting line-up means his approach to the game involves elements of slogging, rash strokes that don’t befit a batsman of his caliber, and brain freezes that we have now become so used to. These were chinks in his armor that were suppose to be ironed out by playing him up the order and giving him the responsibilities of a proper batsman, instilling in him the confidence that the rest of your team depends on you. But Pakistan never did that. Down here at six, there is no need for him to do that. He is not by conventional standards one of the mainstays of Pakistan’s batting  (the cruel irony being that in practice he very much is). He is already averaging 40, which is exceptional for a wicket-keeper batsman coming this low, and in his head keeping probably requires all his extra effort instead of his batting, because that’s the main thing that’s guaranteeing his spot in the XI right now.

Of course he was always better suited to the top order. Your best batsmen, as argued constantly, should be making the games for you instead of perpetually saving them. But Pakistan v India cauldrons are not the places to brew them. If they wanted to manufacture Akmal into a proper higher-order batsman the management would have the decency to do it against lower key sides, in bilateral series where the stakes are more manageable. And when such a chance is provided make sure it is a proper one. Not the typical two, three games where failure means your shoved back down the order.

A batsman’s position in the batting order is extremely sensitive to his performance and state of mind. Each position comes with its own responsibility and duties, and expecting one to perform right away after having become used to an entirely different set of match situations is cruel and unfair to that player. Ahmed Shehzad’s coming of age is living example of the wonders a consistent spot, confidence and persistence by the management can do for a batsman. If pushed up the order Umar Akmal will fail. Of course he will, he is bound to, but not because he is not suited to the job, but because it takes time and effort to make the necessary adjustments. But once the fixes are made in gameplay, and more importantly up there in the head; the dividends the investment pays back will be ten folds what he is offering Pakistan right now.

Unfortunately I see no such favors being doled out for Umar, he is forever the pariah in this generation of young Pakistani batsmen. Forever forced to remain on the fringes of the batting order, while countless others much less deserving than him, get the opportunities he never got.  Even if the management sent him up it lacks the patience and faith to stick with him for the required amount of time (I fully expect him to bat at six again in the next game). More importantly with the World Cup only a year away, it is now too late to fix what after a long time doesn’t seem as broke as it used to. Akmal is performing consistently at No 6. (Yes even a quick fire 30-40 is successful at the No.6 slot, and he seems to get those regularly enough. You can’t judge success according to top order player metrics when he isn’t being played as one). In Sohaib Pakistan has found a dependable batsman (moving him around will be unfair on him and scramble his mind too), and a consistent Shehzad and Misbah means Pakistan’s ODI batting is not as flimsy as it used to be a year back.

Even though Akmal deserves better and it’s discomforting to see him reduced to a wicket-keeper batsman, it is in the team’s best interest for now to just stick with him at six. It’s simply too late now, and sadly the World Cup is more important. Those dreams, of having him become Pakistan’s permanent one-down batsman one-day will sadly just have to remain precisely that.

P.S In an ideal world where the proper chances and utilization of players would have occurred this would have been our order at the ’15 WC- Ahmed Shehzad, Opener 2 (I still want this to be Nasir Jamshed, but taking this spot is failure on his part), Umar Akmal, Sohaib Maqsood, Hafeez, Misbah-ul-Haq (possesses most of the qualities an ideal no.6 should have), Afridi, Gul, Ajmal, Junaid, Irfan. (The tail is too long yes, but lacking a consistent genuine all-rounder whose bowling won’t be taken to the cleaners every time (looking at Bhatti/Anwar Ali) is Pakistan’s weakest link heading into this WC.