Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 3rd ODI, Lahore January 24, 2009

Akmal unworthy of selection

Nothing illustrates more aptly the emptiness of whatever method and merit there is to Pakistan's current thinking than the continued selection of Kamran Akmal as a first-choice wicketkeeper


So complacent to Kamran Akmal's failings have we become that the issue is no longer a debating point. © AFP
 

Nothing illustrates more aptly the emptiness of whatever method and merit there is to Pakistan's current thinking than the continued selection of Kamran Akmal as a first-choice wicketkeeper.

For about three years now, without exaggeration, Akmal has missed nearly a chance per match - an ODI - on average, sometimes more. This series has not bucked any trends. He missed a stumping today and dropped a catch in Karachi's second ODI. His glovework to spinners in particular is, to be blunt, appalling, as if the ball and gloves both carry negative charges. Clean takes are seen as often as dry eyes in an Obama speech.

Shahid Afridi in ODIs has now joined Danish Kaneria in Tests as a repeat victim of Akmal's ineptitude; catches, stumpings, byes given away like every day is Eid. Geoffrey Boycott's great grandmother was an even bet to complete today's stumping off Shoaib Malik (Stevie Wonder, according to bookies, was the odds-on favourite).

So complacent to his failings have we become that the issue is no longer a debating point. Sarfraz Ahmed was tried half-heartedly last year. He did little wrong but was dropped as soon as a new selection committee came in and nobody peeped. Akmal returned, as if to the manor born, amid cautious assessment that he had improved. It was tosh, swiftly evidenced in three missed chances against West Indies in Abu Dhabi.

If the issue is brought up, with selectors, team-mates, the captain even, it is said his batting makes up for it, as it did admittedly in Abu Dhabi. It is the curse Adam Gilchrist has left the game that poor wicketkeepers around the world are excused if only they know which side of the bat to hold. Akmal can bat, but that is not the same thing as making up for his follies. And anyway a player's value to a side is not a balance book that you even out at the end.

By scoring a fifty, you do not automatically make up for two catches missed earlier. A dropped chance is not just calculated in the runs made thereafter. The very mood, circumstances, and momentum of a game changes; if a wicketkeeper is the touchstone from whom fielders take their cue, then at least one reason why Pakistan are so inconsistent in the field is clear. At the risk of stating the obvious - and it obviously needs stating - a player's value is to be judged only by what he adds, not a total sum of his failings from his positives.

But if his batting is to be used as a persistent defence, if we are to go down that road, then there isn't much there either. In his last 49 matches, he averages 21 with a single hundred against Bangladesh and two fifties. Charitably, there are perhaps four match-changing ODI knocks in three years. So no, let's not go down that road.

Akmal had something when he first cemented his place in the side. In Australia, India, the West Indies and at home against England over 2004 and 2005, he was a good wicketkeeper as well as batsman. To spin, he was safe, often spectacular. But he hasn't had it for a long, long time. This may have been a poor patch sometime ago, but it is now turning into a horrid half-life. In this form, he might not catch a cold in an epidemic.

Yet as sure as day follows night, there will be no calls for replacing or resting Akmal for a while. For Shoaib Akhtar there will be screams, for Afridi there are perennial daggers. But Akmal will go on, Pakistan's Mr Teflon, on whom no criticism (or catch) sticks. It is said that he is particularly close to Malik. This much is true that Malik has repeatedly insisted Akmal be retained through this period. He even called him, a little while back, the second-best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world, after Gilchrist, which should invite defamation lawsuits from Kumar Sangakkara and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, to say nothing of Brendon McCullum.

Predictably, Malik defended his performance again today. "This is the same Akmal who has won Pakistan matches from difficult situations. Catches are dropped by all wicketkeepers and one or two in recent matches doesn't make a difference. We have to keep the future in mind and not put pressure on him," he said.

Sadly the thinking is emblematic not just of a cricket culture where merit is often wholly forsaken and mediocrity repeatedly rewarded for the sake of a personal connection, but of an entire nation.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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