January issue 2010

By | People | Profile | Sports | Published 10 years ago

Umar Akmal’s phenomenal success at the international cricketing stage is quite stunning, even to die-hard cricket buffs.

The 19-year-old from Lahore has cemented his place in the Pakistan batting line-up within a span of weeks, having piled up 379 runs from three Tests at 63.16 in the difficult series against New Zealand, where he hit a sparkling century on debut.

But ask the experts and they will tell you that a talented youngster like Umar was bound to do well even at the highest level. “Umar hails from a cricketing family and has played extensive club cricket since he was a small kid,” Aamer Sohail, the former Pakistan captain, tells Newsline. “His confidence and his technique are a result of the daily matches that he has played over the last three or four years,” adds the ex-Test batsman, who picked Umar to play junior cricket for Lahore a few years back.

Umar, like his elder brother Kamran Akmal, the Pakistan wicketkeeper, practically lived at the ground of their club — Cricket Centre — in Lahore’s Model Town locality. Their club plays matches almost seven days a week. And when they are not playing matches, the Akmal brothers used to practice till Kamran made it big and won a place in the Pakistan team.

For Umar, it was only a matter of time. He received his Pakistan call-up last summer and impressed in the One-Day International series against Sri Lanka and later in New Zealand in the Tests.

It was early in 2008 that a 17-year-old Akmal blinked on the selectors’ radar for national senior team duty. He had plundered England and Sri Lanka for 269 runs in six matches in a tri-series before the Under-19 World Cup in Malaysia. Before that, the dynamite kid smashed 248 — 215 in a day — in a Quaid-e-Azam Trophy match against Karachi Blues. He amassed 855 runs in his maiden first-class season.

It was hardly surprising when his coaches at the junior level marked him for international cricket. Experienced coaches like Mansoor Rana and Ijaz Ahmed, the former Pakistan Test batsman, even saw a bit of Shahid Afridi in him. “He is such a force that he can change the complexion of a match in ten overs,” Rana said of Umar almost two years back.

Umar proved him right in the summer of 2009. He destroyed Sri Lanka with a splendid hundred — his maiden One-Day ton — in the fourth One-Day International at the Premadasa Stadium. Since then he has become a pillar of the Pakistani batting line-up.

In the Champions Trophy semifinal against New Zealand at the Wanderers last October, it was Umar’s dismissal at 55 that is seen by many as the prime reason why the Greenshirts went on to lose the match.

But in spite of all the limelight, Umar remains very down to earth. The 19-year-old from Lahore says that he is still making his bones. “I’m living the dream,” he says. “But it’s still very early in my career and my greatest ambition is to cement my place in the Pakistan team.”

Umar gives a lot of credit for his stunning arrival on the international stage to Kamran, his brother and mentor. “Kami bhai has been my greatest inspiration,” he says. “He has taught me how to handle pressure, and I must say that with him around in the dressing room, I have nothing to worry about.”

Umar says he is also indebted to former Pakistan captain Younus Khan and coach Intikhab Alam. “They’ve been really supportive and never make me feel that I’m just a newcomer.”

Intikhab sees a glorious future for the youngster, who has scored 311 runs from 10 ODIs at 44.42. “The good thing about Umar is that he is not afraid to play his shots. “He accepts challenges,” says Intikhab, a former Pakistan captain. “He has already made his mark by coming into the Pakistan team and the way he has been playing shows a lot of maturity. This is what we need: young lads with strong legs and strong minds.”

But there is also a word of caution from the aggressive right-hander. “Umar has started off really well,” says Aamer Sohail. “But if he wants to perform consistently in the coming years, the youngster will have to sharpen his defensive technique.”

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The writer is ranked among the battle-hardened journalists covering sports. As sports editor for The News, he covers sporting action extensively in Pakistan and abroad.