April 1, 2014

Why Pakistan must change to fit Akmal

They have long mistaken his fearlessness for irresponsibility and clipped his wings. But he can't be denied for long

Umar Akmal: attuned to the game's modern paces © Getty Images

Let's indulge ourselves a little, shall we? Watch this video. Watch it again, and if you want, keep watching. Forget this piece. Just keep watching that shot on loop. My mind isn't overstuffed with too many memories of one-off, inconsequential shots by Pakistani batsmen, strokes that burn themselves into your brain just for being what they are. Wickets and one-off deliveries I'm overpopulated with; shots, not so much.

There are a couple of ridiculous Shahid Afridi shots there. There's a patented Javed Miandad invention, moving away and redirecting a very full, straight delivery from Allan Donald past point. That was during an ODI in 1993 and is made especially memorable by the little sideways glance the camera captures of Miandad as Donald is well advanced in his run-up, at precisely the area where he eventually plays the ball. In other words, without moving or committing to any stroke before the ball is bowled, it is still the mother of all premeditated strokes; predetermined in his mind where he was going to play it, not how.

Inzamam-ul-Haq's late, late dab in the Melbourne final; Moin Khan's unparalleled sweep-slice over long-off the game before; a monster Kamran Akmal six off Dale Steyn at the 2009 World T20 - though that remains ingrained as much for Nasser Hussain's casually electric - and prophetic - musings about which Pakistan were turning up that day. Basically there aren't many. This Umar Akmal shot, though, is top of that list right now and I can't see it being replaced for some time.

Slowing it down on Youtube doesn't make it easier to understand. That Morne Morkel delivery was back of a length, a few stumps outside off, and 88mph at launch. Its arc was still rising on contact with bat. It's the kind of delivery I can imagine a hundred Pakistani batsmen past, present and, sadly, future, wafting at and edging behind. Some I can see slapping it straight to cover.

Just before impact, as Akmal readies to launch himself into the delivery, it seems like he might slap-drive it square through off. Then, at impact, it looks like he has scythed it high into the off side somewhere, because the length is not a driving one. But then it quickly transpires that, with that whippy, low back-swing he has somehow engineered an entirely unexpected angle as response. This might not make total sense, but his bat arc ends up kind of slicing across the delivery and lofts it to the right of long-on; not square on off or leg as you might imagine a sliced shot going, but straightish. Akmal ends up open-chested, looking like he has played a high-elbowed straight drive, only on a pitch that is diagonal to the ground, running from long-on across to a fine third man. It is the geometry of the shot that I don't get: to reply to that angle of delivery with that angle of back-swing, follow-through and then shot.

Morkel looks a little bemused, though he gets that way often. He's not alone. Since Akmal's debut in 2009, Pakistan have also not known what to make of him.


A considerable degree of responsibility for the general failures of Pakistan's batting in the last decade lies with the team's management. They don't know how batsmen are made. It took them years to find the right spot for Younis Khan (and many to make him a regular). Just recently they dropped Azhar Ali for Mohammad Hafeez. Asad Shafiq plays every international as if it is his last. Fawad Alam, as well as having not been in the side for years, was played as an opener in his first Test. Akmal has the same stories to tell. Pakistan have been too impatient with him. They have not found him the right spot. They have foisted too much responsibility on him. At other times they have put him into a box in which he doesn't really fit. And they have made him a wicketkeeper.

He is the most utterly modern batsman Pakistan have. He is their first true batsman of the post-Sehwag age

This is all part of the same tapestry. It's not that batting resources beyond Younis and Misbah-ul-Haq are, or should be, the major worry. Instead it is fretting about how Pakistan will squeeze the least amount of runs out of the burgeoning potential that resides in a potential line-up of Ahmed Shehzad, Azhar, Shafiq, Sohaib Maqsood, Akmal and Alam.

But Akmal is cursed twice over not just because of who he is - a Pakistani batsman - but especially what he is. Which is the most utterly modern batsman Pakistan have. He is their first true batsman of the post-Sehwag age, where clear-headed intent in shot-making is a far bigger commodity in batting than many other attributes. He is attuned to the game's modern paces, all upwards of swift. That's not to mistake him simply for a boundary hitter. Far from it. For long it has been clear that he is a sharp manipulator of good balls and defensive fields to keep fetching runs. Sure, everything else can go to the boundary. But nobody in Pakistan can play like he can. Few have the mechanics for it, but nobody - Shehzad excepted - has the belief either.

In the modern way Akmal doesn't feel the need to adjust his game to a format or a situation; he would rather impose his game on the format or situation. In only his third Test innings he was sent in at one-down by Mohammad Yousuf on a tough surface in Wellington. No one else, all more experienced, wanted to bat there, so up Akmal went. At the time his 48-ball 46 felt a skittish, unsure innings, and he struggled against some good seam and swing bowling. But thinking back now, it was a first sighting of him forcing his skill onto a difficult situation, believing it was good enough to cope. He got done in by a peach but it had the potential to be a first-day game-breaker. Pakistan were immediately suspicious: this, muttered some, was not the way to bat in Tests.

A month later, on his first sighting in Australia, he took 19 from a Peter Siddle over. One six, pulled just wide of long-on at the MCG, made Richie Benaud smirk, up in commentary. The late Peter Roebuck went all aquiver.

Pakistan? He didn't pick out Akmal specifically but Yousuf chose to deliver a stark, thinly veiled warning about how T20 cricket would finish Pakistan's batsmen. That was pretty much the party line; Pakistan's cricket establishment generally tends to be antiquated and non-progressive. They have long mistaken Akmal's fearlessness for irresponsibility.

This last month or so in Bangladesh, however, Akmal has pushed himself into a bigger conversation. His value to the limited-overs side is unquestioned. That was never in real dispute, and adept as he has become at his position now, the only debate is whether he and Pakistan are better served eventually with him higher up. But now the horizon should be widened again. Under Misbah, Pakistan have preferred a safer, more cautious approach in the make-up of their Test batting. That is fine, because it has helped them in certain conditions. But Akmal cannot be long denied. For five years Pakistan have gone about Akmal the wrong way round. It is not that he needs to change himself to fit in. It is that Pakistan needs to change to fit him in.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National