Umar soars as Pakistan win at last
"Bring them on!" was Umar Akmal's message to all comers as he demolished every Australian bowler on the day barring Shaun Tait. Not that he will lose sleep over that. Instead it is the Australians who will ponder over their pints how Umar singlehandedly picked Pakistan out of the gutter at 47 for 4 and hauled them into a position they never left for the rest of the evening.
It would be improper to term Umar's assault as audacious. It was instinctive, calculated, and plain confident. In the last year, a period in which his talent has flourished, Umar has been praised and condemned in equal measures: if he deserved the kudos for his aggressive attitude, cricketing pundits were ready to slap him for his injudicious shot selection during certain rush-of-the-blood moments. Fair enough. But take into account the fact that Umar is just 20, an age where the kite of freedom is always soaring.
Waqar Younis and Shahid Afridi - Pakistan's coach-captain pairing - do not, rightly, want to tether Umar's flight just yet and, instead, are willing to lend him the space to understand himself rather than shovel heaps of criticism onto his shoulders. Clearly such strong backing was one big reason that motivated Umar to perform the heroics on Monday in front of a boisterous crowd of 13,000 at Edgbaston, which was coloured entirely in Pakistani green colours.
It was a critical moment when Umar walked in at the fall of three quick wickets in the two overs after the Powerplay, including that of Afridi for a first-ball duck. Pakistan needed more than an antiseptic to heal the fast-spreading wounds. Not only did Umar arrest any further damage but in the company of an equally confident Shoaib Malik, quickly ran roughshod over the hapless Aussies. Judging that the straight boundary was the shortest and the safest route, Umar dashed out of the blocks to loft Steve Smith over the sight screen into the RES Wyatt stand. He had understood that the Aussie legspinner was not getting the ball to drift through the air and there was little point waiting for the ball to arrive.
But his most spectacular moment arrived against Dirk Nannes, who was returning to his second spell, having been carted for 20 in his first two overs. Umar understood the left-armer would try and angle a fuller delivery across the off stump, one of his strong points. But he was willing to hit inside out. Nannes, nervously playing in his first international since the World Twenty20 final in the Caribbean, started with a wide. Instinctively Umar's smartness came to the fore as scooped the next delivery, predictably fuller and straighter, neatly over the keeper for a fine boundary.
His strike-rate when he struck his third consecutive fifty - and second against Australia - was an astonishing 247. He was not going to relax and neither did he allow his partners to do the same. Despite his seniority Abdur Razzaq was given clear instructions, by Umar, not to go for the big hits. With a further eight overs to go (when Shoaib Malik departed) Umar realised that Pakistan couldn't afford to get carried away. Bravery, quick thinking, creativity, and leadership - Umar displayed all those qualities in equal measure at various moments of his short stay, which was only 31 balls long. Waqar put the finger on the button when he said Umar was on his way to big things if he could continue stay open to learning.
"He is probably the most talented cricketer I've seen in the last 15-20 years," Pakistan's coach said. "You really have to stop him from certain things which he really wants to do. But that's the way he is going to learn - he is only 20 and he has got heaps of time. He is a good learner, a good listener. He is up there…he is really talented."
Michael Clarke, who witnessed Umar frustrate the Australians during the World Twenty20 semifinals, couldn't agree more. "Played well. didn't he?" Clarke said. "Where he bats in the team the ball is a little bit older, so there is no swing. He is a very clean striker of the ball. The ground is not that big and he was hitting a couple of big sixes down breeze.
"But he has played really well in the last couple of times against us," Clarke added. "Hopefully we can get a few more wickets and get him on when the ball is a bit newer." But the Australian captain wasn't giving his young opponent enough credit for his talent: Umar had come in one-down at St Lucia and imposed himself without much sweat.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo