A serious talent announces himself
In September, Pakistan were dizzied in what should have been a routine chase against a West Indies second XI that still had more heart than the current first at the Champions Trophy. The pitch at the Wanderers had the kind of bounce and pace cricket presumably wants to consign to the same bin holding bouncers, lighter bats and longer boundaries. Chasing 134, Pakistan were 76 for 5 and their top order had dealt with bounce as expertly as the US has with Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq put together.
Umar Akmal eventually saw them home. But unless it is your job to be this way, his unbeaten 41 will, in this time of hyperbole and overload, not be an etching in your mind. It was a fine, composed hand, unrushed, not panicked and sensible. Either during the match, or at another, Sanjay Manjrekar, in a break from commentating brought up the innings. A properly earnest disciple of the Bombay school of batting, where technique and correctness is all and sometimes overbearingly so, Manjrekar was as impressed as he was surprised that such a batsman had come out of Pakistan. How solidly he got behind the rising ball, how well he let the ball go, how unhurried he was and how smartly he constructed his little innings; Manjrekar thought him to be the most proper batsman to emerge from this land for many years.
At the risk of being a product of this age, has there been a better, more rounded batsman to come through in Pakistan in the last decade? Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan, around the turn of the century, were the last batsmen Pakistan produced and both took time to settle in, and neither looked, initially, as settled, or as pure as does Akmal. A surprisingly large number of Pakistanis have scored hundreds on Test debut so Akmal, statistically, is not unique. And only three went on to substantial careers but there is something about Akmal, so much so that it is difficult to not be very excited.
There are more than just glimpses of his elder brother in some shots, but Umar's strokeplay is purer and broader, maybe unencumbered by the duties of 'keeping. That word 'pure' keeps coming up, and it is most appropriate for there is a clearheaded aggression in him that is the way of successful modern-day batsmen. He will not dally over wanting to drive through cover or square, he will go for it if he sees it there. He will not ponce around against spinners, inevitably making the first move. Unlike Kamran he has a leg-side game as well though the best of it all is his pulling, so sweet it might make you sick. Those particularly proficient at it - small men usually - do it to balls of length not deserving such fates, and Daniel Vettori would have grudgingly acknowledged such proficiency a bare handful of deliveries into Umar's Test debut.
But if it had been only the first-innings hundred then perhaps this piece might not have been written at all. A few would have been capable of producing that kind of one-off counterattack and a few have done; for one, his brother did it against India a few years back and a Faisal Iqbal 80-odd against Australia is also much remembered with fondness and sadness. But Yousuf will not be alone in appreciating the significance of his second-innings 75 and Manjrekar and the Bombay school, and our own Hanif, had any of them been watching it, will have liked it even more.
New Zealand knew more about him now, his urges and his thinking. Men were put on the boundary, a deep point was in place, bouncers were hurled in asking him to risk a pull and a stiff target waited on a last-day track; having passed a first test of skill, now came a test of will.
This was crisis management redux, from the first innings at least. Boundaries were not so cheap and gifts came, like hookers, with a price. He would have to know, as a newspaper once simply wrote of Hanif, that it pays to wait for runs. He did and very nearly it paid off; both for time and balls, he actually batted marginally longer than he did in the first innings and never looked like an imposter doing so. After his ODI hundred in Sri Lanka, a sprinkling of his talent at the Champions Trophy and a handy T20I innings or two, the conclusion is that he doesn't bat in a bubble. The mood, the context, the format, the task at hand - these are the things that shape his batting as much as his own skills.
It should not be lost on anyone that he is a product very much of Pakistan's cricketing system, and he was also almost lost to it. During a spell at the National Cricket Academy he was told to leave by head coach Mudassar Nazar because he didn't seem focussed enough, not practicing hard, throwing away his wickets and Nazar had had enough; Akmal, though, kept returning, and with a little word from his elder brother, got back in. He returned, according to Nazar, a changed boy.
The sifaarish [recommendation] was worth it, even if it is a shame for what it says about just how chancey the whole process often is. Otherwise though, he wasn't spotted in a side street in tattered clothes, shattering windows with his pulls. He worked his way up from junior level inter-city and district cricket, played and performed for Pakistan at Under-19 level and on Academy tours and spent a season wowing people for SNGPL domestically. When he got called up earlier this year to the national side, it was after he had hit three hundreds on an A team tour to Australia, against bowlers like Shaun Tait and Doug Bollinger.
Expectations now will rocket, which at one level is fine, for they have been so low of Pakistan's batsmen so long that it cannot be a bad thing. At another, it is unfair, especially when your current top order would struggle to make the tail of Canada's batting, and it will at some point become too much. But at that juncture Pakistan must remind themselves that like Mohammad Aamer, Akmal is genuine reason for hope. Neither must go to waste. After that they might even sit back and wonder contentedly at the continued ability of this country to keep producing such gems.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo