Umar Akmal was selected for the Test series against Sri Lanka © AFP
By Saj Sadiq
Widely regarded as one of Pakistan’s most talented cricketers, 24-year-old Umar Akmal has struggled at time to live up to the high expectations and hype surrounding his batting. For almost five years since he made his international debut in August 2009, Umar has been in and out of the Pakistan side in all three forms of the game. In recent times, however, he has been regarded as more of a short format specialist, playing 94 ODIs where he averages 38.57 and 56 T20Is where his average is 27.75
Perhaps to increase his utility to the team, Umar has also taken responsibilities as wicketkeeper but the inability to make a mark for Pakistan in the Test arena based on just 16 appearances has been a matter of concern for him. All that is about to change as he has been named in Pakistan’s Test squad for the tour of Sri Lanka where he could be playing his first Test after almost three years.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Umar spoke extensively about his feelings on his recall to the Test squad for the series against Sri Lanka, his work at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) to improve his batting skills, his role as a wicketkeeper for Pakistan and also looked forward to working with head coach Waqar Younis.
Excerpts from an interview:
PakPassion.net (PP): It’s been nearly three years since your last Test appearance, you must be delighted with the call-up to the Test squad for the Sri Lanka series?
Umar Akmal (UA): I’m really pleased with the call-up but at the same time I’m still confused as to why I was dropped in the first place after performing so well. Obviously someone must have thought that I wasn’t good enough to be picked for the Test squad but I’m very grateful to the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) for all their support over the years. I’m also thankful to the new selection committee for their faith in me and giving me a chance to once again reclaim a place in the Pakistan Test side. I won’t let the selection committee down, they’ve place trust in me and I will repay that faith to them.
PP: Do you think the new management team such as Waqar Younis have had a key role to play in your comeback to the Test squad?
UA: The management team had given me and all of the other boys much support and given me a comfort level that perhaps wasn’t there before. We’ve been working ahead of the training camp in Lahore at the NCA and the atmosphere has been very good. Practice sessions have been very enjoyable and there’s a real feel as if we are one big family when we are training.
PP: You’ve been working once again a lot with batting coach Mansoor Rana at the NCA lately. Any specific areas of your batting that you’ve been working on?
UA: I enjoy working with Mansoor Rana, he’s somebody who knows me very well and knows how to get the best out of me. My problems with the bat have been more to do with my approach rather than technical issues and that’s what I’ve been working on and I’m looking to address. I’d also like to mention the fitness trainer at the NCA, Yasir Malik, who day in, day out does a fabulous job with all of the cricketers. He’s worked with me since the start of my career and I’m very grateful to him for all of his time and effort.
In addition, Mushtaq Ahmed has been at the NCA guiding all the players who have been training there and that has been a real bonus. Mushtaq has obviously been working for several years with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and he’s learnt a lot as a coach. This is knowledge that he is now looking to pass onto Pakistani cricketers.
PP: Were you surprised at your recall to the Test squad?
UA: You always hope, you always believe and you never give up. Every time a Test squad was announced I’d be hoping, praying and waiting and now my chance has finally come. If I was told that I could only play one format for Pakistan, I would choose Test cricket. It’s the toughest format, it provides cricketers with the biggest challenges and you learn the most about yourself in Test cricket. This is why I am desperate to re-launch my Test career and want to be a regular pick in the Pakistan Test side.
PP: There’s the argument that young Pakistani batsmen like yourself don’t have many role-models in Pakistan cricket, do you think that’s true?
UA: Younis Khan is someone who I really admire and look up to. He embodies the best qualities of Pakistan cricket in terms of personality and ability. I’m delighted he’s back in the one-day squad and I’m looking forward to batting with him again in the fifty over format. He’s s senior player, a great professional and when he was the captain, he was very helpful in my development. Even when he hasn’t been the captain, he would help the young cricketers so much. I cannot wait to bat with Younis in Test cricket also and hopefully bat for long periods with him. Younis is very good with the younger players, there’s no arrogance, there’s no attitude from him, he’s very humble and he always has time to offer advice and help anybody who asks him for advice.
PP: Is the 2014 version of Umar Akmal a different version to the one who last played Test cricket in 2011?
UA: This is definitely a different version to the one in 2011. Everyone will now see a more mature batsman and you will see a batsman who is more responsible and someone who understands his role in the team. Whatever role the team management want me to play I will respond to them. I’m a more mature cricketer now and that will definitely show in the series against Sri Lanka and beyond. This is a different Umar Akmal!
PP: Your critics say that you’ve not shown enough maturity when batting and your shot selection at times has left a lot to be desired?
UA: In the last domestic season I batted for long periods for SNGPL and showed that I have the temperament and the levels of concentration to play long innings. Critics are there to criticise and they will always find ways to knock you down. Some people sit on television and get paid to say things and to generate headlines, which is not constructive. After all, some of those on television criticising the current team have also played First-Class and international cricket, whilst others who are on television criticising have probably dreamt about playing First-Class cricket but speak as if they broke every cricketing record available.
I just want to respond to criticism with my performances as that’s the best way to respond. If I score runs, if I win matches for Pakistan, if I show consistency then the critics may just praise me, but that’s not guaranteed. I listen to constructive criticism, I listen to my coaches, my teammates and people around me who know about cricket. If I let criticism get me down then there is no way that I will be able to perform. The scoreboard doesn’t lie and that is the best way to respond to the critics, by performing.
If playing positively is a cricketing sin, then I put my hands up and admit that I have committed a sin. Cricket has changed, even in Test cricket batsmen are looking to be positive and there are a lot more results these days than there were in the past. That is largely due to batsmen looking to score at a quicker rate. What I need to do is to balance my positive intent with the right shot selection and I’m sure I can get that balance right.
PP: Is the lack of green lip balm these days also linked to maturity?
UA: I’ve run out of it. I ordered it from Australia but haven’t been able to find any. I’d planned to buy some in England during the Champions Trophy tournament last year but I wasn’t selected for that competition. Once I’ve managed to find some then it will be back.
PP: You’ve recently got married, that must also have an impact on your maturity and perhaps it will help with your cricketing performances?
UA: Yes it’s an added responsibility and I feel marriage will help me improve as a person and as a cricketer. My wife is very supportive and she really wants me to do well and to give my all to my cricket career. If I do well in cricket then that’s good news for my country and for my family also. My wife has been very understanding, she understands that there are highs and lows as a professional sportsman and she has really helped me focus on my cricket. She has told me to really concentrate hard on my cricket career and ensure that I fulfill all of my cricketing ambitions.
PP: You and Adnan Akmal have received central contracts this time around and Kamran missed out. That must have been a bit awkward?
UA: It’s the choice of course of the PCB as to who they pick for central contracts. We as cricketers just have to wait and accept their decisions. I’ve spoken with Kamran and tried to boost his confidence and told him to perform so well that there is no way that he cannot be overlooked in the Pakistan team or when they are announcing central contracts in future. Kamran is at the NCA almost every day working hard on his game, working with all of the coaches who I have mentioned earlier in this interview and I’m sure that he will do his utmost to regain his place in the Pakistan team.
PP: You’ve only played sixteen Tests since making your debut when you scored 129 and 75, that must hurt?
UA: It’s all about confidence. As a cricketer if you are confident then you can do anything. I was very confident at the start of my Test career and perhaps some of that confidence was drained out of me for one reason or another. I was never told why I was dropped from the Test squad, nobody sat down with me and told me what I needed to improve upon or explained to me why I was being discarded and that damaged my confidence a lot.
It hurts that not one person said to me that never mind, you will bounce back, work hard, score runs and you can come back to Test cricket. As a young man that’s all I needed, that would have been a huge boost and incentive for me, but there was no communication at all from anyone which was painful.
PP: There’s been a gradual improvement in your wicketkeeping, do you think that the role of wicketkeeper/batsman is one that you’ve acquired for the rest of your career?
UA: I’m not a natural wicketkeeper and I’m saying that with deepest sincerity. However the management have asked me to perform a role for the team and that is something that I accept and a challenge that I am meeting head-on. The management have shown faith in my wicketkeeping ability and I’m more than happy to perform the role as and when they want me to.
The management have also spoken with me about my wicket-keeping role and why they are entrusting me with that responsibility and I’m more than happy to do the job for Pakistan cricket whenever I am required to. I’m actually starting to enjoy wicketkeeping now which I wasn’t at first.
I’ll leave it to the public and the experts to decide whether I’ve improved as a wicket-keeper or not, but I’m definitely more comfortable in the role.
PP: How does someone who rarely kept wicket but is now required to keep wicket in international cricket, prepare himself mentally and physically for such a key role?
UA: Well I’m having to spend more time on the practice areas focusing on my skills. Previously it would be spending time only on batting and fielding but now I need to make time for the third skill of wicket-keeping. I take the role very seriously and I’m working very hard on improving as a wicketkeeper. It’s a tough role, one mistake can be vital to your team’s chances and I’m working hard on maintaining my concentration levels which I feel are important to a wicketkeeper.
PP: There’s a continuing debate surrounding which position you should bat in. What do you feel is your best batting position across the three formats?
UA: In domestic cricket I have always performed best at number three. If you look at my career record you will see that for SNGPL I’ve made most of my runs in the one-down position. This season I dropped to number four for SNGPL as we signed Azhar Ali who is an excellent number three batsman. I was asked to bat at number four and I agreed with the team management, as Azhar Ali is an international number three and it would benefit not only SNGPL, but also Pakistan if he batted at number three in domestic cricket.
I’ve batted in almost every position for Pakistan. It’s not about Umar Akmal it’s about the team and what is best for the team. In the Asia Cup against Bangladesh I was sent very low in the batting order at number eight after some of the bowlers but I didn’t mind, I just went out there and tried to do my best. I managed to make some important runs that day and Pakistan won. I’m just happy to be in the team, I think I’ve grown out of worrying about which position I bat in.
PP: I suppose making the Test squad isn’t enough, you’ll be itching to get into the starting line-up for the Test series against Sri Lanka and hoping to make an impact?
UA: I feel that my ability has never been in question. I’ve always been a very confident cricketer and I have a lot of faith in my ability. It’s time now to turn that ability into consistent big scores for Pakistan. I want to play a vital part in Pakistan’s cricket future and be an integral part of a successful Pakistan team. To achieve those aims I have to make sure that I am consistent with the bat and ensure that I don’t play rash shots when at the crease and when well set. I know my flaws and it’s time to put them right.
PP: Waqar Younis is back as coach, someone who you’ve worked with before. Do you think Waqar’s appointment could help you in your quest for consistency?
UA: I’m pleased Waqar is back as coach. He’s a cricketing legend and someone who has a lot of respect amongst the players. He is someone who is familiar to all of us and someone who I have worked with before. I’ve played my best cricket when Waqar Younis was coach so I’m really looking forward to work with him again.
But at the end of the day the coach can only do so much. Once you are out in the middle it’s down to the individual players to perform. I’m not one of those cricketers who will hide behind the coach when I’ve not performed. I take full responsibility for my performances and God willing everyone will see better performances from me in the future.
(Saj Sadiq is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net, from where the above article has been reproduced. He can be followed on Twitter at @Saj_PakPassion)