Pakistan's prodigal son Akmal has only himself to blame for his plight

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Umar Akmal.

There’s a phrase often associated with the group of early 90s draftees in the NBA – when several potential superstars failed to reach their apex for a variety of reasons. They became known as the “too much, too soon” generation. Injuries, drugs and immaturity all played a role in how they went down, but more than anything else it had to do with too much money, hype and rewards too early in their careers.

It is a phrase I’m often reminded of as I look back at the career of Umar Akmal. Rarely, if ever, has a Pakistani batsman come through with greater promise. In his first two seasons in the domestic Quaid-e-Azam Trophy he scored over 1,400 runs at an average in excess of 57. He had racked up the numbers for the Under 19 team, and scored three hundreds in seven innings when Pakistan A toured Australia in 2009.

Within six months of his debut in 2009 he appeared to be the best batsmen in a failing team. And considering his age and experience it was reasonable to assume he would only get better. He didn’t.

Four 50-plus scores in six innings in his debut Test series in New Zealand were to be followed by just three such scores in the next 24 innings. Meanwhile in ODIs, he averaged 44 at a strike rate of 92 in his debut year of 2009. Since then there has been just one calendar year in eight when he has averaged over 35. He scored a century in his debut Test, and has  not scored one since. He scored a century in his first ODI series, and has scored only one (against Afghanistan) in the following eight years.

In the case of uber talents, Pakistanis tend to err on the side of the individual rather than the institution. His sins are washed away blaming immaturity; the stagnation is blamed on his “handlers”. And in the case of Umar those sentiments were greater than ever before. Shoaib Akhtar and his ilk were evoked. Superstars needed coddling and management, right? Except one thing: the likes of Shoaib or Kevin Pietersen would seize the big moments. There would be constant reminders of why they were worth the trouble. In Akmal’s case that just hasn’t been the case.

Umar Akmal.

Umar Akmal.

Now the most obvious excuse, and I have been as guilty of it as anyone in the past, has been that Akmal’s never been allowed to reach his potential because of the number he bats at. Akmal himself went to Imran Khan last year, asking him to tell the Pakistan management to play him at No3. It’s a question I’ve asked before of Pakistani captains and management, and the answer is always along the lines of he needs to have done it in the domestic game to earn the same at international level. Fortunately, or unfortunately, for Umar his domestic skippers (Misbah-ul Haq and Azhar) have usually also been his international captains. And he has had the chance to prove his worth.

The problem is he has failed to live up here as well. Since playing his last Test in 2011 he has played 40 first-class innings batting at number three or four. In those innings he has only two centuries, and has scored at an average of 38.

In the last five years of List A cricket in Pakistan, he has batted in the top four 19 times. He has scored his runs fairly quickly – at  a strike rate of 92 – but averages 25.7 with no centuries.

And that’s the problem. A player’s extracurricular activities are ignored as long as he continues to perform, but in Umar’s case those have led to a decline in what he should be best at.

And it’s not as if his discretions  are ‘normal’. There was the time he was reprimanded by the senior players in Dubai for caring more about the prize in the post-match ceremony than the result of the match. Then there was the time he threatened to quit domestic side SNGPL after they had disciplined him for going AWOL because of his brother’s wedding. There was also the time when a televised club match in Faisalabad had to be delayed for over an hour because Umar needed to have a cake delivered to the ground so he could cut it in front of cameras, seeing as it was his wedding anniversary after all. There are numerous such cases.

But all of this could be excused away as the narcissism of the superstar if he had remained one. His career, as represented by his fitness, has just not been taken care of. One former member of Pakistan’s coaching staff tells the story of how the start of any strenuous training session would lead to Umar excusing himself to go to the toilet, for as long as 40 minutes at a stretch. The result is that he has repeatedly failed fitness tests – September 2014, January 2015, May 2016, March 2017 and now May 2017.

And that is perhaps an illustration of his whole career. He was once among the fittest men in the Pakistan dressing room. Now, when he was supposed to be at his peak, both his fitness and his performance have declined so far that he struggles to make the team.

I guess even the prodigal son had to waste away his fortune completely before he returned to his senses.

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Sarfraz says Pakistan have 'nothing to lose' in Champions Trophy

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Sarfraz Ahmed.

Pakistan captain  believes his side will “have nothing to lose” when the Champions Trophy one-day international tournament in England and Wales gets underway next week.

Despite completing series wins in all formats during their recent tour of the West Indies, Pakistan have not been spoken of as one of the favourites to win the tournament, which features the world’s top eight ODI teams.

Pakistan begin their campaign against arch-rivals India at Edgbaston on June 4 in arguably the match of the tournament, with South Africa and Sri Lanka their other two opponents in the group stage.

But an undaunted Sarfraz told reporters at Edgbaston on Friday: “We have nothing to lose, we just want to play our natural game. We are very hopeful of playing well in this tournament and we want to win it.”

The wicket-keeper/batsman added: “Against the West Indies, we had a big fielding improvement.

“We don’t see us as having a surprise element, we want to come here and play free cricket, starting against India.

“This is my first major tournament as captain, I’m definitely very hopeful and excited about the competition.

“My aim is to play my own game, to not play under pressure and to just play as I do in domestic cricket.”

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Kohli desperate to prove point at Champions Trophy

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Virat Kohli.

India captain Virat Kohli admitted Thursday that he needs to prove his superstar status to English crowds at the Champions Trophy after his powers deserted him on his last visit to the country.

Kohli has a staggering average of over 90 in one-day cricket in the last 12 months and is fourth on the list for most centuries in the 50-over format with 27.

But the 28-year-old struggled in England three years ago, averaging under 20 across five Test matches.

“If you talk about the longer format of the game then I did not do well here three years ago,” said Kohli.

“I was not able to contribute to the team and I want to succeed, although not to prove a point. It motivates me further to come back and do better.

“For me it is a game of cricket. From then to now, I have shown I am strong mentally. England brings a lot for challenges for a batsmen and I want to overcome them personally for my satisfaction at the end of my career. From that point of view, it is exciting for me.”

Kohli’s India won the last edition of the Champions Trophy, also played in England, in 2013, defeating the hosts by just five runs in a final reduced to 20 overs a side due to rain.

Kohli played a key role, ending the truncated game with a top score of 43.

The 2017 eight-nation Champions Trophy gets under way on June 1 and runs until June 18.

India are in the same group as bitter rivals Pakistan, against whom they open their campaign at Edgbaston on June 4, Sri Lanka and South Africa.

India have not played a 50-over match since beating England 2-1 on home ground in January.

“I am very excited to be playing as captain in my first major ICC competition,” added Kohli.

“As far as the team goes, we won last time because our fast bowlers did very well, our spinners were strong and our opening batsman did well. They were the main three factors.

“This year the team is a lot fitter, the cricketers are a lot more mature because that was a very young group four years ago.”

Kohli may be the star of the team, but old stagers Yuvraj Singh and former skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni still have major roles to play.

“We needed to strengthen our lower middle order contribution. Too much burden was on MS (Dhoni),” said Kohli.

“He was not able to express himself. But now we are balanced, we have good fast bowlers, depth in batting and the series against England sealed it for us.

“We are in a good head-space going into this tournament.”

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