The saddest thing that could have happened to Umar Akmal is the saddest thing that has happened to Umar Akmal. He has become irrelevant. Eight years ago this month, nobody could ever have thought irrelevance would be his lot.
Not after that first international hundred, in an ODI in Colombo, where his straight sixes off a still-swift Lasith Malinga got the attention and his batting smarts stole the show. (Ironically it was Waqar Younis, now among Akmal's fiercest critics, who couldn't help but blurt out on air, "You youngsta beauty!" after one of those sixes.)
And especially not after the (brief) run of form that followed, beginning with a Test debut hundred in New Zealand and some punch in Australia. He was the future not just of Pakistan's batting but of batting in general, not least when taking 19 off a Test over from Peter Siddle in the MCG Test for no other reason than that he could. It was the most aggressive act by a Pakistani against an Australian since Javed Miandad attempted to acquaint his bat with Dennis Lillee's head.
He came with such vim and immediately felt so intrinsic that it was impossible that he could ever not matter, or that he wouldn't always mean something important to Pakistan. Eventually that start would flag, or we might come upon some technical flaws, but he would always matter. He had to because he was nothing like any Pakistan batsman who had come before him. He came from the future, armed with Afridi's daring and Miandad's sense, both branching out from a technique that impressed even Mumbai-school types. It sounds a little much now, but some of those early innings really were - with apologies - lit AF. Even the PCB, even his surname, couldn't screw it up. And if they did, he was the exception who would come back from it and come good.
"He came with such vim and immediately felt so intrinsic that it was impossible that he could ever not matter, or that he wouldn't always mean something important to Pakistan"
The comedown took time. Until a couple of years ago, he still mattered. It mattered what the team was doing with him, and it mattered what he was doing to himself. Discussions about his role in the ODI side - whether he should be keeping wicket, or whether he should move up the order - felt urgent.
Asking whether Misbah-ul-Haq had done wrong by letting him go so early in his tenure from the Test side was difficult and important; a bit of MisYou was exactly what Akmal might have needed.
Now he is irrelevant. You may not think he is, given that he's across the news cycle and your timelines like some soon-to-be-fired Trump administration official, but don't be fooled. This is him fighting off his irrelevance is all it is. He has no immediate future in this Pakistan side, which, given the kind of gaps in their ODI order, and the retirements of Younis Khan and Misbah from their Test side, is a deeply sad assessment to have to make.
He doesn't matter anymore because, for all his protestations, it doesn't matter to him. It matters to him as the source of his renown, but the game itself doesn't matter to him in the way that it does to so many of his contemporaries, in Pakistan and outside. Of course, in time, in some cynically redemptive interview, he will argue the opposite, that cricket, and cricket for Pakistan is all that matters to him. He'll put up a selfie somewhere, of him dripping in sweat, purporting to show us how serious he is about getting fit and coming back, #bleedinggreen or some such nonsense.
Remain unfooled. It doesn't matter. It can't. How could it when he has been given seven opportunities in the last few months to prove his fitness, to prove exactly how much it matters, and has been unable to do so? How could it when the board gave him a chance to be part of a high-performance camp at the NCA after he was dropped, and instead he went off to the UK to tend to an injury privately? How could it when he thinks a smarter way to get back into the side is not to get fit but to tweet like a pathetic sycophant at the PCB chairman, congratulating him for bringing international cricket back to Pakistan? How could it when he thinks he can fool the public and try to turn his run-in with Mickey Arthur into some insult visited upon Pakistan by Arthur? Wit does not come dimmer.
Arthur's words were harsh, but from accounts, it doesn't sound like they were anything other than that. It was a wake-up call. Waqar has offered a few over the years. But the best critique - one I can't help but repeat - came in January 2010, mere months after Akmal's debut, from a member of the management: he is an amazing talent, but boy does he need to be taken down a dark alley and have the attitude beaten out of him. Akmal has been hitting snooze this entire time.
If you have the appetite, cling to this tiny morsel of sympathy (Akmal will feast upon it, be sure). His selection and then swift axing from the Champions Trophy squad was a PCB cock-up. It was either the result of irregularities in the NCA fitness test, or some collateral damage from an unspoken tussle between Inzamam-ul-Haq (who selected Akmal) and Arthur (who sent him back), or some combination of both.
The bottom line, however, is that Akmal has not been fit enough for a while, and especially since he landed in Australia at the start of the year for the ODI series. It is partly because of players like him, in fact, that the PCB has become obsessed with regular fitness tests and that they are happy to fly players in from halfway across the world, where they are already performing in elite tournaments, just to conduct fitness tests and then fly them back.
"Akmal has no immediate future in this Pakistan side, which, given the kind of gaps in their ODI order, and the retirements of Younis and Misbah from their Test side, is a deeply sad assessment to have to make"
The unconcern has bled into Akmal's actual game. Last year, at the World T20, it became clear that as batsmen were taking huge strides forward, he had remained static. From once - and briefly - being among the front-runners, he was now a dropout.
Take this simple and brutal diagnosis from Pakistan's batting coach from that event, Grant Flower, with you as you go. He didn't single out Akmal (or Ahmed Shehzad) specifically but it was about them specifically the question was asked.
"I think people like Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers, Kevin Pietersen, the really good players, they take pressure off themselves by getting their preparation 100% right. So when they go out in the middle, they've got everything organised.
"Their fitness is 100%. They get all their off-field stuff right and when it comes to dealing with the pressure in the middle, all those things come into place. And I think our guys have got a long way to go before they get anywhere near those guys."
It may ring in your head for a while. Let it. It'll be gone soon enough.