Kamran Akmal faces his mental challenge
Among all the questions Pakistan will be asked of over the next seven weeks, an important one will be how Kamran Akmal found his way back into the Test squad despite being hauled over coals in January for the Sydney Test debacle. In a deplorable outing Kamran missed four catches (three of them off Michael Hussey) and an easy run out off Shane Watson (knocking the bails off with hands as the ball slipped out his hands) in the Test where Australia bounced back from the brink of defeat.
In the following days Kamran was derided naturally but he kept his chin up and naively announced to the media that he would be playing in the following Test at Hobart. This was news even to the team management who had meanwhile rushed in the reinforcement Sarfraz Ahmed who eventually played the match. Kamran was left with nothing but biting nails and eating his words.
It was not the first time Kamran had faced such severe scrutiny. After riding the wave of success initially during his first two years at international level he reached a plateau and has remained stuck since. Though he was dropped for the first time in 2008, from the Asia Cup squad, after the then PCB chairman personally questioned Akmal's shoddy glovework during the Kitply Cup in Bangladesh the same year, it was not for long.
On his return he went back to his usual slippery ways, infuriating the bowler and the selectors. Still he remains the first-choice wicketkeeper for the numerous selections panels over the last five years. Critics believed that the only reason he continues to hold his place is because of his batting, which can be promising but not consistent. But mainly it was because the lack of any other reliable alternatives left the selectors with no other choice.
Regardless of the rumours and innuendoes Kamran still has some backers including from foreign quarters. Geoff Lawson, Pakistan's former coach, believes Kamran's problems are more mental. "He has got the skills to be a good wicketkeeper. It is just that when people criticise him that affects his confidence," Lawson said. Hence when Lawson joined Pakistan he told the players not to be affected by the media reports. He even advised players not to speak to media. That wasn't easy.
"When he has confidence he has got good self belief but the Pakistan system is a all about criticism and that is a vicious cycle," Lawson said. That is exactly what happened during the Australian series. Lawson was doing radio commentary then and witnessed Kamran's struggles from up close. According to him the Pakistani had a good first Test but in Sydney "he dropped a couple of difficult ones". "He got unfairly criticised for his performance in that game," Lawson said. "People were not being objective and that just was ridiculous."
What made things difficult for Kamran were his fumbles were being dissected based on the TV evidence. "Look at the catches dropped; a legspinner bowling to a lefthander, getting an outside edge is not an easy thing to catch," Lawson added. "They all look simple in slow motion but some of the catches he dropped were not so easy. One was inside edge on the pad, on the glove and in slow motion you feel that he should have caught them between two fingers. People just stuck into him and held him responsible for losing the Test match."
Instead of charting out a detailed rehabilitation plan, Lawson said Kamran became a victim of the hostility and politics within the Pakistan Cricket Board, which was happy to feed to the speculations of a hungry media. "He did not get the support form the coaching staff and the administration. He has got to have coaches, selectors, co-players supporting him. If an Australian player makes a mistake he gets supported by everybody so you overcome the mistake pretty easily. But in Pakistan you get criticised at the drop of the hat."
In the aftermath of the Australia tour where Pakistan failed to notch a single win, Kamran was found guilty of indiscipline along with his younger brother Umar, who feigned injury ahead of the Hobart Test because Kamran was dropped. The PCB fined Kamran Rs 3 million and Umar Rs 2 million. Subsequently the fines were reduced by the six-man inquiry committee appointed to report on the disastrous tour. Pakistan's then head coach Inthikab Alam and his assistant Aaqib Javed raised concerns over Kamran's three dropped catches in Sydney along with the run out.
On his return Kamran has been more clear-eyed, talking to various former keepers like Ian Healy and Paul Farbrace, former Middlesex gloveman and Kent's current head coach. Healy mainly asked Kamran to revisit the basics when the pair met in Hobart.
"He felt it [training] needs to be more deliberate," said David Dwyer, Pakistan's multi-faceted trainer, who helps out Kamran with the drills. According to Dwyer, Healy said Kamran has a good wicket-keeping game. But Dwyer has continued to work closely with Kamran. "My total focus is to make sure he is fit which may help in other areas like side-to-side movement, the jumping, the running."
During the two victorious Twenty20s at Edgbaston Kamran was pro-active and was seen jumping out of his position, sprinting towards the ball, turning and trying to force run outs or trying to prevent a single. Dwyer said Kamran's enthusiasm leapt after getting a good rating from Healy. Lawson saw the same openness when he had Kamran under his wings. "His attitude to the game is fantastic. He loves to come out and work hard and his dedication and discipline is absolutely fabulous."
Farbrace, who was Sri Lanka's assistant coach before joining Kent, had seen Kamran's glovework for a few years from close quarters. It didn't take him long to highlight the areas that Kamran could work on when the Pakistani sought him out for a couple of sessions during the warm-up game in Canterbury late last month.
"The two main things I pointed he needs to work on were his posture and the keeping his hands forward. His hands were a little bit close to his body so I told him by keeping them in front he would have a nice big catching area. It was just really a couple of reminders with a fresh pair of eyes," Farbrace said.
Farbrace was happy that Kamran was open to suggestions because he feels like fast bowlers wicketkeepers, too, like to have a little bit of help from time to time. Incidentally some of the drills Farbrace introduced to Kamran were the same he had given the Sri Lanka pair of Kumar Sangakkara and Prasanna Jayawardene.
Farbrace agreed that England is a quite a difficult place to keep wickets because the ball swings late so you have to catch more under the line of the eyes and outside the line of the head compared to places like Pakistan and Australia. It was in England four years ago that Kamran's downfall started when he left alone or spilled some easy chances. So Farbrace stressed to Kamran on lining the ball better with his eyes and his head. And when standing up the right posture is getting the hands forward and using the hips more when the ball bounces.
"So rather than keeping the chest behind the ball I told him actually to curve the body to almost a side-on position to allow the hands to stay on the line of the ball when it bounces.
"Wicketkeeping is a massive confidence thing," Farbrace added. "Also he wasn't gloving the ball as well as he would've liked to have done and he also missed some chances. It is a mental thing and more than anything he needed to go back to his basics. And good practice brings confidence. That's what he has got now: he is a lot more confident, he knows his practice is good, he is very fit, he is working hard.
"His agility was not in doubt - all he did earlier was he got way back on his heels rather than being on the balls of his feet and that caused his hands to be closer to his body than he would've liked it. Hence he was catching the ball under his body rather than now in front of his body. Therefore he wasn't always picking the ball up as well as he could've done."
The results are coming steadily. Kamran claimed a brilliant stumping off James Hopes in the second Twenty20 at Edgbaston. Farbrace believes the Test series will be a different set of challenges where Kamran will need to block out distractions for six hours.
"If you feel you are struggling against a particular bowler or you are not having a great time it is very easy to be distracted," he said. "Wicketkeeping is about not having distractions and not pre-judging. When keepers struggle they start looking for something to happen - they start thinking about the ball swinging, spinning, keeping low as opposed to just reacting with a good posture to how the ball behaves. That is the challenge."
It all comes back to Lawson's point on the mental approach. "Technical mistake originates as a mental mistake so you got to work on the mental stuff first," he said. "But if you practise and get the technical stuff right it can have a reverse effect where you have the confidence to go out and play freely." It remains to be seen if Kamran can get a grip on both fronts.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo