By Saj Sadiq
Widely regarded as one of Pakistan‘s most talented cricketers, 23-year-old Umar Akmal hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations and the hype surrounding him. Nearly four years since he made his international debut, Akmal has been in and out of the Pakistan side in all three formats and was recently left out of the squad for the Champions Trophy.
A batsman with incredible flair and an eye for the unorthodox, Akmal hasn’t won over his critics that include former Pakistan coach Mohsin Khan and former Pakistan batsman Basit Ali. A Test average of 35.82 and only two international centuries have provided critics with ammunition, but supporters of Akmal point to his lack of chances and his batting position within the team.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Akmal spoke about being dropped from the Champions Trophy squad, his approach to batting, his thoughts on what critics have to say about his shot selection, the pressures of being expected to keep wicket and how he aims to add maturity and consistency to his batting.
PakPassion.net (PP): How bitter a pill to swallow was your non selection for the recent Champions Trophy?
Umar Akmal (UA): It was very disappointing to miss out playing in such a prestigious tournament. I thought it was a strange and surprising decision and I wasn’t really expecting it to happen. You never take your place for granted and I’ve never been complacent, but the way I was suddenly dropped without too much justification was very difficult to accept.
However it was the selectors’ choice and they picked the squad that they thought would perform well in England at the Champions Trophy and they obviously thought I wasn’t deserving of a place in that squad.
PP: There were some rumours that you were so dejected after being dropped that you were thinking of giving up cricket?
UA: I was feeling really down and disappointed and, yes, I did think about giving up the game for good. I felt very low and dejected for a few days and was weighing up my options. During this time I was contemplating my future and one of the options was to give up professional cricket for good. It was a serious option for me and one that I gave a lot of thought to.
However during the period after the Champions Trophy squad was announced, I spoke with some of my senior colleagues and some ex-players who encouraged me, boosted my confidence and told me not to throw away a promising career. I spoke candidly with Zaheer Abbas, Wasim Akram and Ramiz Raja and they all offered me great advice and encouragement which was very beneficial.
Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq also spoke with me and told me not to get disheartened by missing out on selection for the Champions Trophy and told me to remain focused and positive, to practice hard and that my time would come again in future.
In addition, the coaching staff at the National Cricket Academy in Lahore have been very supportive, particularly Yasir Malik the fitness trainer and Mansoor Rana who is one of the batting coaches at the NCA. Both Yasir and Mansoor put in a lot of time and effort with me and their hard work, support and time will always be appreciated by me. When you are feeling down, you need good people around you and I was lucky enough to have some great support from family, friends, ex-players and current players.
PP: Watching the Champions Trophy on television cannot have been an easy experience?
UA: We’ve all won matches single-handedly, bowled the best deliveries and played the best shots from our living room whilst watching cricket on television. But when you are out there in the middle and the pressure is on you, it’s a totally different scenario. Your mind does strange things when you are under pressure and unfortunately that’s what occurred during the Champions Trophy. People come up to me and say why did you play this shot in a particular match or why didn’t you do this and that, and it’s difficult to answer them but until you have been in that match situation it’s difficult to appreciate what you are up against.
Of course I was thinking about what could have been whilst watching the games and I think I could have made a difference to the Pakistani batting during the Champions Trophy, but pressure does strange things to you as a cricketer and I just felt that our batsmen were under pressure during the tournament. Perhaps, if they had played their natural game then things could have turned out differently, but that’s very easy for me to say. I think the best thing we can do is to forget about what happened at the Champions Trophy and look forward rather than backwards.
PP: You’ve been announced as the first-choice wicketkeeper for both the one day squad and the Twenty20 squad for the tour of the West Indies. How do you feel about your wicketkeeping skills?
UA: Nobody has officially said to me that I will be the first choice wicketkeeper for the one-day series, although I’ve read some reports. We’ll have to see what happens when the team is picked. I’ve played a lot of cricket for Pakistan as a batsman and to be handed the responsibility of having to also keep wicket is a tough ask. However, if the team requirements are that I have to keep wicket then I will do that to the best of my ability. Sometimes you have to do things outside your comfort zone in sport and if the selectors, captain and coach want me to keep wicket then I am prepared to do that and to give it my best shot.
PP: Did you ever envisage that you would be keeping wickets for Pakistan in international cricket and do you think it’s something that you can do long term?
UA: I’ve always enjoyed batting and fielding. Bowling and wicketkeeping have never really been in my plans. We had enough wicketkeepers in our household and I was never needed as a wicketkeeper when we practiced as youngsters. The wicket keeping gloves were shared between Adnan and at times Kamran and I left them to it.
I think I’m a good fielder and someone who can save the team runs in the outfield and someone who has the ability to inflict a run out or take a good catch, but if the management want me to keep wicket then I will take on that responsibility, but it’s a bit nerve-wrecking to be thrown that responsibility.
PP: What did your brother Kamran say to you when you were selected as wicketkeeper ahead of him for the tour of the West Indies?
UA: I’m yet to hear from him… no, in all seriousness, Kamran was the first to phone me, to congratulate me and to wish me the best of luck for the tour of West indies. As you would expect there’s a professional rivalry between us brothers, there always has been right from when we were playing cricket in the streets, or when we started playing club cricket and then domestic cricket, but there are never any hard feelings when one is selected over the other.
PP: Now that you’ve been selected for the tour of the Caribbean, do you feel as if you have a point to prove?
UA: Absolutely. I definitely have a point to prove, but I need to focus my energy on making sure that I perform well when the opportunity presents itself, rather than being bitter about what occurred. I was feeling down and a bit sorry for myself, but now that I’ve been selected for the tour of the West Indies I’m really upbeat and positive. I’m looking forward to wearing the green of Pakistan once again and proving my critics wrong.
PP: You mention your critics, their viewpoint is that you play a brand of cricket that is fraught with risk and provide the opposition bowlers with too many cheap wickets. Is that a fair assessment?
UA: I admit that at times I’ve played some reckless shots and shots that I didn’t need to play, but when you are out in the middle in front of thousands of fans at the ground and millions watching on television then you want to do your best and to entertain and that sometimes leads to mistakes. It’s very easy to criticise and to point the finger as my critics have done ever since I started playing international cricket and at times I’ve felt as if I’m an easy target for them. However whilst it’s infuriating at times, I try to remain positive and not to let the criticism get to me.
PP: But surely, consistency and performing well, making big scores and playing long innings is a better option than entertaining for a brief period and then watching the rest of the innings from the pavilion?
UA: I agree and that has been my downfall in the past. I’ve probably tried to entertain a bit too much instead of playing shots that are risk-free. I’ve always played a brand of cricket that as a fan I would like to watch and it’s difficult to change that.
There have been times when I have gone out to bat and there have only been a few overs left and I’m not one of those batsmen who is selfish and who aims to make a run-a-ball not out in the last few overs. I’d rather try to play for the team and go for my shots and aim for the boundaries instead of just going for singles and batting for my average. I have always batted for the team rather than for myself or for personal glory or milestones. But the time has come for the sake of my career and my cricketing future where I will have to make adjustments to that approach, as sometimes I feel those sacrifices I make with my batting are not being appreciated.
PP: So are we going to see a “different” Umar Akmal at the crease from now on, going forward?
UA: The Champions Trophy snub was a kick in the groin. Whilst it was a setback it also made me think about my approach to batting and what changes I needed to make as a batsman and what changes I needed to make to my batting style. I think you’ll see a more mature Umar Akmal at the crease from the tour of the Caribbean onwards. I don’t think there will be a total overhaul of my approach, style and shot selection but there will be some changes.
PP: You’ll be up against Chris Gayle in the upcoming series in the West Indies. Your thoughts on Gayle’s batting and what you can learn from him?
UA: Hopefully we won’t see too much of Gayle’s batting and we can dismiss him early in all of the matches. He gets the full backing of his teammates, he’s given a license by his team to dominate and play his natural game and that must really boost his confidence. You are going to be successful at times and there are also going to be failures but when your team mates back you, then more often than not you will succeed and that is the situation with Gayle. Having the backing of your teammates, captain and the team management is so important as a cricketer, it can make all the difference. It doesn’t matter how many matches you have played, how many runs you have scored, knowing that you are very much part of the plans and that you have that support from your captain and team mates can be the difference between success and failure.
PP: You seem to have a love/hate relationship with Pakistani fans without much middle ground. Do you feel they are yet to see the best of Umar Akmal?
UA: I’d like to thank all of my well-wishers around the world. I’ve always received a lot of backing and support from my fans and that’s very encouraging particularly when you are out of the limelight and not playing for Pakistan. I’ve always enjoyed a good relationship with most Pakistani fans and long may that continue.
I’m just itching to get that green shirt on in the Caribbean and get out there and do my best for Pakistan. I feel that I’m at that age now where I’ve been playing international cricket for several years and it’s time to mature and show a lot more consistency in my performances.