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News

Umar Akmal leaves Pakistan for league cricket in California

The 31-year-old, who recently completed a ban for corruption, is weighing up his options including a long-term cricketing future in the USA

Umar Farooq
Umar Farooq
04-Oct-2021
Umar Akmal has to stay away from cricket till February 19, 2023

Umar Akmal is playing for California Zalmi in the ongoing season of the Premier C league  •  Getty Images

Umar Akmal has left Pakistan mid-season to try and explore opportunities playing league cricket in the USA. He has signed a short-term contract with the Northern California Cricket Association but is open to weighing up his options including a long-term deal severing his allegiances with Pakistan cricket. He is representing California Zalmi in the ongoing season of the Premier C league.
Akmal was recently reintegrated into cricket after completing his ban for breaching the PCB's anti-corruption code, but ESPNcricinfo understands his comeback wasn't well-received within the circuit. The PCB helped him follow his rehabilitation program, but his selection for the top domestic teams remained on hold. He was asked to play for a second XI team instead of a first XI team, and therefore hasn't been involved in the ongoing National T20 Cup, which clashed with his expectation that he would come back where he left off, at the top level. After scoring 0, 14, 7, 16 and 29 for the Central Punjab Second XI in the PCB Cricket Associations T20 tournament, he decided to move away from domestic cricket - at least for the time being.
It isn't clear if Akmal will miss the entire season, with the first-class Quaid-e-Azam Trophy set to start from October 20 and the One-Day Cup from February 25. But with his future uncertain and no buyers among the six provincial associations, he has decided to pursue his ambitions elsewhere. His family has confirmed he has left for the USA, but maintain that his older brother Kamran - three of the Akmal siblings have played Test cricket for Pakistan - was not involved in his decision-making.
One family member expressed the view that Umar Akmal had been subject to biased treatment. "There are a few others who were banned with bigger charges but given unprecedented support to make a comeback. The system was never fair to Umar. There were blatant compromises made to select a few players with poor fitness, but the benchmark was made tighter for him [Umar] to make sure keep him out."
The family member didn't name the players but it has understood that PCB had relaxed its fitness criteria to accommodate Azam Khan, Sohaib Maqsood and Sharjeel Khan in the national set up. The comparison with Akmal's case isn't quite apt, however, in light of his troubled past with nearly every head coach that has taken the national team's reins in the last 10 years, with Waqar Younis once writing in his report that sacrificing "one Umar Akmal will allow us to develop other players who can truly and proudly wear the star on their chest and represent Pakistan." He urged PCB to make Umar realise the worth of playing for Pakistan and re-earn his place by playing domestic cricket.
Akmal, 31, has coughed up plenty of fines over his career but the recent ban has hit him the hardest. After a lengthy legal battle with the PCB, his 18-month ban was slashed by six months by the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS), making him eligible for an early return to representative cricket. He had originally been banned for three years for not reporting spot-fixing approaches made to him before the start of the 2020 PSL. He admitted a part of the charges but never accepted the length of the sanction, with lawyer citing similar cases from the past to build a case that others facing similar charges had been banned for less time. Following two appeals, one before the PCB arbitrator and one with the CAS, his ban was first cut down to a year-and-a-half and later by another six months.
Akmal's career has been beset by several discipline issues, which have often overshadowed his cricket. He burst onto the international arena in 2009 as 19-year-old with huge promise, scoring 129 and 75 on Test debut in New Zealand. He also scored a century in only his third ODI and became a hot commodity overnight, with Pakistan seemingly blessed with an all-format middle-order batter with all the talent in the world. But his inconsistency and his troubled relationship with the PCB and the team management gradually led his career to slump. After 16 Tests from 2009 to 2011, he never wore Pakistan's whites again, and though he went on to play 121 ODIs and 84 T20Is, his career seemingly ground to a halt in 2017, with a comeback in 2019 - following Misbah-ul-Haq's takeover as Pakistan coach - proving brief.
Then, in February 2020, hours before the opening match of the PSL season, he was suspended and his career was truly in the wilderness.
Akmal's move to California could be the start of an exploration into longer-term opportunities in the USA. USA Cricket, together with its commercial partner ACE (American Cricket Enterprises) has ramped up efforts to bring in overseas professionals for its Minor and Major Cricket League set-up, pulling in former internationals on a three-year residency path to switching allegiances and representing the USA. The former Pakistan opener Sami Aslam is one of many players from various countries to take up the deal and move to the USA, and there are dozens of other cricketers in Pakistan who are open to taking up the chance if offered. It has been confirmed that Umar hasn't received an offer yet, but his initial stint in California could go on to define his career path.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent