Gifted Umar Akmal needs proper guidance
"To destroy a sportsman is very, very easy. Don't select him, treat him as you shouldn't and then his time goes and he's finished." We were talking about Shoaib Akhtar, but in the non-specific way that he represented a species of sportsmen.
He had just been handed a fine the repayment of which the International Monetary Fund would have had to finance and been banned by the Pakistan Cricket Board forever and longer (only the sub-clause that Akhtar's yet-to-be-conceived offspring also stood banned was missing). It was a cartoon feud.
And the late, great Nur Khan was neither amused nor despondent nor outraged. He was just wise.
"A super sportsman is a special man," he said. "You have got to treat him differently. You have to realise he is the one precious stone you have and he needs to be protected. Otherwise he can destroy himself and you punish him by not selecting him, neglecting him for a while."
Khan was the most successful Pakistani sports administrator, and though he's not around anymore, it's unlikely he would have had anything different to say if the subject was Umar Akmal.
Akmal is the most gifted batsman Pakistan has seen in a generation; no sane person can doubt this.
He is modern and, thus, aggressive; he is intelligent (intelligence not being judged solely by the timing or manner of dismissal); there isn't a shot he cannot play; he has the attitude, a little ego, selfishness and plenty of fight.
Azhar Ali is a solid bet and little Asad Shafiq looks like he would scratch the hell out of any opponent before letting them walk by. But Akmal? He is both and a whole lot more.
Last month Akmal was dropped from his domestic team (he has subsequently returned, but that does not alter this debate). There was confusion over why. The coach Basit Ali (those four words together incidentally, say scary things about Pakistani coaching) said it was lack of form.
Akmal, agitated, said it was a personal falling out. He had missed a game because of his brother's wedding and the side weren't happy. The wedding as a wasting of talent? Khan would have loved this.
Basit's complaint, that Akmal needs to learn how to build an innings, holds merit. The former Pakistan coach Mohsin Khan (five scarier words about coaching right there) also said so earlier this year.
It is true. Akmal does get carried away by the breadth of his own skill sometimes, confused by too many options for one delivery, too many ideas, too much urgency.
He is as infuriating as he is talented, that is also not in doubt. In 30 Test innings so far, he has thrown away starts in nearly half of them (eight innings of between 20-49, six 50s).
He is the kind of cocky, too, that can rub people entirely the wrong way. One of the earliest assessments of him, made by a former member of the management during the tour to Australia in 2009/10, was that - metaphorically - Akmal needs to be taken into an unlit back alley and have the brat beaten out of him.
But if there is at least hope that he can rewire his personality away from the game, how on earth is he expected to learn to play long-format innings if he is not regularly playing long-format cricket?
Allowing the likes of Mohsin and Basit to steer - not decide, but steer - the fate of his career seems so wilfully wrong-headed, especially when there are men such as Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq in the side, men who should be shaping his career. Younis is a nurturer by nature and is already playing that role with Azhar and Shafiq. Why not Akmal?
If it is the case - and this is not improbable - that Akmal has not been receptive in the past, then remember he is only 22. He is the future, he is the one who must be persisted with.
Even Misbah, not possessed of anywhere near the same talent but steeled by a greater will to squeeze whatever he could out of it, is ideally placed, an example of how easily a career is both wasted and rescued.
These men can teach him not only how to build innings, but about how to build a career, how to build a life.
It might not be straightforward getting him into the Test XI immediately, but Pakistan's batting order has always been a fluid idea. Keep him in the Test squad, and why not give him some responsibility, maybe at one or two down, allowing him the entire canvas of an innings to work with.
At least play him higher than six, where he really cannot win. And it is not as if the selectors are not open to this idea.
Because in the end, as Nur Khan concluded, the failure of Akmal would not be his failure.
"As an athlete, if you are better than everyone else, you want people to acknowledge that and make a fuss over you. So you allow that from your side. I would be a failure in management if I was to lose [a player]. Losing people, losing your best players is a failure of management."
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Published: December 9, 2012 04:00 AM