Introspection needed if Umar Akmal is to become the batsman Pakistan desperately need

One day Umar Akmal will wake up and realise that his career is gone. If he has any sense, he will look back and wonder how it slipped away.

One day Umar Akmal will wake up and realise that his career is gone. If he has any sense, he will look back and wonder how it slipped away.

The strong suspicion is that he is the kind of man who will look around for things and people to blame, that life and Pakistan cricket has wronged him. He will not be entirely wrong.

But there comes a point in every man’s life when he must claim responsibility for his actions and their consequences, for his successes of course, but also for his failures. The only question is whether Akmal gets to this point when he still has a career, or after it is over.

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On Tuesday night against New Zealand in Mohali, Akmal arrived to the perfect situation in which to prove that he is the batsman Pakistan wants – actually, needs – him to be.

Every criteria was in place: in at four, a true surface, a great start, a set batsman at one end, a big total to chase down. Go out, win the game, be that batsman.

Instead he played not only one of the strangest innings that he has played in his international career, but one of the strangest played anywhere. It was played flat, in monotone across 26 boundary-less balls, through over nine overs of the innings.

And then he got out in the 18th over, hitting a full toss straight to long-on.

That continued a long-standing and underwhelming record at the game’s biggest events. He is not yet 26 but has played in two World Cups and four World Twenty20s.

If you took his numbers across both as a whole, they would not look so bad either. In 33 matches, he averages in the mid-30s (less important in the shorter format) and has a combined strike rate above 100.

Hidden behind that is a recurring and frustrating theme. Time and again, he has got out at just the moment in an innings when Pakistan could least afford it: either when they were looking set in a chase, or when prospects of a good total are in clear sight.

At least eight out of 30 innings fit this theme. In each, he has been set, with a score range of 13 to 59, at least a couple of boundaries to the good, and then pfft, he is gone. It skewers the knife in further that more often than not, he has fallen not to a poor shot, but to poor execution of a shot he would otherwise nail. You could argue that is one and the same thing.

You might think eight out of 30 is not an especially high proportion. But these are all high-stakes games, three of them against India, all on the game’s biggest stages. These are precisely the moments when the difference becomes very clear between the batsman that he is and the batsman that he should aspire to be.

It is an indictment of Pakistan’s management that he has come in at every position from four to seven on those eight occasions. But it is also, as Pakistan’s batting coach argued on Wednesday, on Akmal himself.

Grant Flower conceded he did not have answers to why Akmal could arrive for the World Twenty20 in such sterling form from the Pakistan Super League (PSL) and play as he did. In his words, he was confused and frustrated by it.

"To me it's dealing with pressure at international level and making proper judgments at critical times and I don't think we get that right," he told The National.

Sure, he acknowledged, Pakistan’s batting problems go much deeper, into domestic cricket, into the surfaces they play on, the balls they use. But, he reasoned, the bottom line is if you are playing international cricket and cannot handle the pressure, then you do not survive.

It is a fair point, though men such as Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad can put forward the defence that they have missed out on developing that ability by not playing in, say, the pressure cauldrons of the Indian Premier League, or the Big Bash, or even at home in front of their own crowds.

That ability, to make right decisions at the right moments, after all, rarely comes by itself. It comes necessarily from making mistakes, from coming across those occasions repeatedly and learning from them. It comes also, Flower said, from preparation.

“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 per cent right.

“So when they go out in the middle they’ve got everything organised. And so, regarding taking on the big shots, they’ve done their homework and they’ve got it down to a T.

“Their fitness is 100 per cent. 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. I think that is the secret to making good judgments, out in the middle and at critical times. And I think our guys have got a long way to go before they get anywhere near those guys.”

In these comments, perhaps, lies his most scathing assessment of where Pakistan’s young batsmen have gone wrong. He did not say it directly, but the implication was as clear as it was damning.

Akmal – and Shehzad – have not become the batsmen Pakistan needed them to be because they have not wanted to become them, or at least not wanted it enough. They have not wanted it as badly as men such as Kohli, Joe Root and De Villiers, in each of whom the desire to improve has been fiercely evident. It has more than a ring of truth about it.

List of Umar Akmal’s dismissals

vs Australia, 2010 World Twenty20

18 (14 balls): Batting at No 4, fell to leave Pakistan 70-4 after 8.1 overs. Chasing 192.

vs England, 2010 World Twenty20

30 (25 balls): Batting at No 4, fell to leave Pakistan 118-6 after 16.4 overs. Pakistan ended on 147.

vs India, 2011 World Cup

29 (24 balls): Batting at No 6, fell to leave Pakistan 142-5 after 33.1 overs. Chasing 261.

vs India, 2012 World Twenty20

21 (18 balls): Batting at No 7, fell to leave Pakistan 115-7 after 17.3 overs. Pakistan ended on 128.

vs India, 2014 World Twenty20

33 (30 balls): Batting at No 4, fell to leave Pakistan 103-5 after 17.2 overs. Pakistan ended on 130.

vs South Africa, 2015 World Cup

13 (20 balls): Batting at No 6, fell to leave Pakistan 175-5 after 36.5 overs (47-over innings). Pakistan ended on 222.

vs Australia, 2015 World Cup

20 (25 balls): Batting at No 5, fell to leave Pakistan 124-5 after 29.1 overs. Pakistan ended on 213.

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