The riddle that is Umar Akmal
Even before he had made his international appearance, Umar Akmal had the air of an accomplished cricket hero. He walked with a strut, stiffened his chest when shaking hands, and had this way of looking past you as he talked. If you didn't know better, you might assume he had won the World Cup for his country or made a double-hundred in Australia.
Although his initial performances seemed to justify this conceit, there is a growing sense that Akmal is squandering his talent. His Test average, sitting pretty at 55.50 after five matches, has trailed off to 35.82 after 16, getting him axed from the Test squad. And while his ODI and T20 numbers have held up more strongly, a habit of throwing his wicket away suggests he can do so much better.
His fluent innings of 91 in the second ODI of the recent series against Sri Lanka is emblematic of his temperament. There he was, unbeaten on 79, playing a steady hand, with Pakistan needing another 86 from 76 balls. An unbroken sixth-wicket stand was prospering with Sarfraz Ahmed. On the next three deliveries, Akmal stroked three brilliant boundaries, then sent a catch straight down the throat of mid-on. The chase faltered, and Pakistan lost.
After his dismissal Akmal refused to remove his pads, and struck a distraught pose, sitting on the pavilion steps. When TV cameras brought him into view, his eyes darted self-consciously between the camera and the stadium screen. In its own way it was a fine example of grandstanding. Umar comes from a family of seven brothers, two of whom, Kamran and Adnan, are also playing for Pakistan. They grew up in an area that is as quintessentially Lahore as Lahore can get. Grandstanding is something Akmal probably knows a thing or two about.
Had he kept his cool, Pakistan's scoreline in this series would almost certainly have read 5-0 instead of 4-1. He made amends with a match-winning 61 not out in the final ODI, but it just underscored what he is capable of. As a batsman he is technically complete, possessing the skill to play orthodox and unorthodox shots all around the wicket with equal flair and command. Seasoned observers have even compared him to a young Javed Miandad, but there is an irksome flamboyance about him that seems to be getting in the way of him realising his true potential.
Suspicions that he might have feigned injury once or twice haven't helped his reputation. Most famously this happened after last year's Sydney Test between Australia and Pakistan, when Kamran Akmal's disastrous wicketkeeping got him the chop. Almost on cue, Umar opted out of the next game, complaining of a side strain. He did eventually play, after being talked out of what many felt was a mistaken show of solidarity with his brother.
At times he seems quite an enigma, making it difficult to get inside his head. A particularly puzzling example is his batting on the final day of the ill-fated Lord's Test between England and Pakistan last year. The spot-fixing news had exploded, and the air was thick with controversy and stigma. Pakistan, following on after collapsing for 74 in the first innings, were going through the last rites in an atmosphere that was overwhelmingly funereal. In these dying spasms, when no one could focus on cricket and wickets fell steadily at the other end, Akmal chose to smash an unbeaten 79 from 68 balls, with 11 fours and two sixes. Was it a show of defiance, an opportunity to make some quick runs, or an attempt to save face for his team? He certainly kept people guessing.
Beneath this exasperating exterior is a rich core of talent and ambition, and every now and then it expresses itself to the delight of fans and critics alike. There are, for example, his eight Man-of-the-Match awards, some of which came from efforts that left a mark - the careful 44 not out against Australia in the 2011 World Cup, made after the top order was gone; the tenacious fifty against South Africa in last year's World Twenty20; the unbeaten 102 from 72 balls against Sri Lanka in Colombo in 2009, in only his third ODI. And although he has yet to win a match award in Test cricket, he did mark his Test debut, two years ago in Dunedin, with an attractive 129 and 75.
Pakistani fans are still looking for an heir to their august batting lineage, which starts with Hanif Mohammad, consolidates through Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, and Inzamam-ul-Haq, and continues in the current era with Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan. Umar Akmal has all the talent to be next in line, but so far he has shown little evidence that he grasps the art of accumulating runs or possesses the psychological secrets of longevity at the crease. He must understand that true batting greatness is not a matter of destiny but of discipline, diligence, desire, and dedication. Far more is required than just flashy shots and the occasional match-winning fifty.
Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi