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By Umer Rana
Umar Akmal burst onto the scene in international cricket when the Pakistan side was in a catastrophic phase plagued with problems ranging from rumoured rebellions and groupism to allegations of fixing. It was a mini flash black of the 1990s, where captaincy kept changing hands with allegations of match-fixing and rebellions in the backdrop. Akmal forced his way into the debris of one of the most colossal batting order in the history of Pakistan cricket, on the back of a successful tour of Australia with the ‘A’ side. Akmal had a walloping start in the international cricket with a ton in only his third game, where he butchered Muttiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga — with a dash of authority that was missing for some time. In Test cricket, it was an even better start with the awe-inspiring ton on debut against a Shane Bond-led attack in tricky conditions. In the second innings, he gave hope of a Test victory with his breathtaking strokeplay. A star was born for Pakistan. But, Akmal has only shown glimpses of brilliances since then and hasn’t been as consistent as Pakistan hoped he would.
With passage of time, Akmal’s stroke play became even more enterprising, his form jittered and those moments of madness with the bat became more frequent — which left critics irked and the fans flummoxed. Despite all that, he remains Pakistan’s most prodigious batting talent. Before Akmal, Imran Nazir was one such batsman who dazzled with his audacious strokeplay. If anyone comes anywhere close to AB de Villiers’ illustrious range of strokeplay, it has to be Akmal and certainly, he is the most gifted young batsman in the world. That statement might raise plenty of eyebrows but being naturally gifted is one thing, translating that talent to performances is a different ball game. Virat Kohli has done that.
There are of course those flashes of brilliance. His performances can range from bewilderingly magnificent to obnoxiously scrappy — depending on which side of bed he gets up on any given day. Obviously, he is himself responsible for his enigmatic career, but batting lower down the order has done him no good. In his whole career, Akmal has batted only four times in the top four and just once at the No 3 spot, that too happened when the openers batted until the 37th over. Especially, in the last three years under Misbah-ul-Haq, he has been bumped to the No 6 spot to be that finisher. At that spot, you either have to attack when you get the chance or consolidate once wickets have fallen at regular intervals. Micheal Bevan and MS Dhoni have mastered those roles and they are undoubtedly the all-times greats in One-Day Internationals (ODIs).
Waqar Younis’ tenure as coach ended in 2011 and thereafter Akmal never looked like making it back to the Test side. It looked as if he was dubbed a limited overs specialist. Instead of grooming players, it seems to be an easier option to stereotype them. De Villiers is an apt example of the development of an immensely gifted batsman. He started off by opening the batting and one cannot go all guns blazing in those conditions in South Africa. That experience made de Villiers realize the importance of getting in before unleashing his array of shots. Though he has moved down the order later in his Test career, he has shown remarkable consistency in the format.
So, batting up in the top order in ODIs is the best thing that can happen to Akmal. That would take off the added pressure on him, which burdens him every time he goes out to bat at say No 6. By coming at No 4, he will be settled at the crease most of the times before the slog overs and he could make them count — something he did against Afghanistan in the last Asia Cup, where he blazed his way to 100 from 50 in a mere six overs. Most importantly, Pakistan cricket has to show patience with Akmal for he plays so many shots and there bound to be occasions when it doesn’t come off. But, when he gets it right, he presents an exciting option. It seemed as if the managements in the past tried to curb his strokes and aggression. The methods that work with Misbah will not necessarily work for Akmal. So, it will advisable to send him at top of the order with the freedom to express himself.
Recently, Waqar came back into the mix again and sanity prevailed right away. Akmal got back into the Test squad for the first time in nearly three years. In the first ODI against Sri Lanka, Akmal was slotted at No 4 as Waqar kept on suggesting in his commentary stints for a long time. Surely, Waqar has started with the steps in the right direction but he also must find a place to fit him into the Test side. Surely, it would be ridiculous to halt the development of the brightest talent in the country for sake of waiting for Misbah or a Younis Khan to hang up their boots.
(Umer Rana is an Electrical Engineer who graduated from NUST. A club cricketer from Islamabad, he fell in love with the beautiful game at the tender age of six. Wasim Akram’s Pakistan’s road to the marvelous triumph in the 1997 World Series, is his first cricketing memory. He is always up for a chat about cricket, captaincy and tactics)
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