Dynamite kid ready to explode
While scrolling down the Pakistan team list, the name Akmal is impossible to miss for it's right on top. The obvious question follows, is he the Pakistan wicketkeeper Kamran's brother? Indeed he is. Umar, the youngest of the Akmal brothers, has had a quiet Under-19 World Cup but has a reputation as a fearsome striker of the ball.
Just ask England or Sri Lanka against whom he scored 269 runs in six matches in a tri-series before the World Cup or the bowlers of Karachi Blues against whom Umar smashed 248 - 215 in a day - in the Quaid-e-Azam trophy in 2007-08. Akmal scored 855 runs in his maiden first-class season in Pakistan and it's just one of the reasons his coach Mansoor Rana and Ijaz Ahmed, the fielding coach, have so much praise for him.
"One innings from Umar can change everything," Rana said. "He can demolish, he can win the game in ten overs."
That destructive ability hasn't been on view in Malaysia. Umar was dismissed for single-digit scores in the group matches and he made 17 in the quarter-final against Australia. His technique against Australia did not impress, he backed away to good length balls and tried to hit towards cover or moved across his stumps and attempted to pull through midwicket. Rana, however, insisted that the innings was an aberration rather than the norm.
"Only in the previous game against Australia did Umar play across the line, otherwise he plays straight," Rana said. "That innings was unlike him. Maybe he was excited because of the television coverage; perhaps he got carried away on a good pitch after the seaming tracks in Johor."
Those are indications that Umar still has a long way to go to mature into a rounded batsman; after all he is only 17. Rana even sees a bit of Shahid Afridi in Umar.
"What ever you tell Afridi, he will keep nodding and saying yes. I ask Umar 'what is your plan?' He says 'I'll bat for 50 overs' and I start laughing. When he gets out after scoring 40-50 off seven-eight overs I tell him there are still 40 overs to go. He says 'that was my plan Mansoor bhai but I don't know what happens'."
Umar realises he's been given a free hand to play his natural game, but even though his failures have been in Johor where the conditions were difficult for batting he says the "bad pitches were no excuse". His aim is to play an innings that "will make people forget the failures".
Rana and Ijaz haven't tried to change Umar's aggressive approach for that is his USP. Instead they have encouraged him by asking him to open, which he doesn't do at first-class level, and urged him to show discretion in shot selection.
"I want him to play shots but once you hit a four or a six you need to block to keep the good balls out," Rana said. "The reason he is opening is so that he can take advantage of an open field. He doesn't look at where the fielders are. Even if long-off and long-on are deep and you give him a flighted ball he'll take it as a challenge and will try to hit."
Umar has one, possibly two more innings, to show a worldwide TV audience what he can do. His role is pivotal for depending on how he fares, Pakistan could either get off to a flier against South Africa in the semi-final, or lose a very early wicket.
George Binoy is a staff writer at Cricinfo