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Brotherhood: Playing for a name-III

March 24, 2013

Umar Akmal and Kamran Akmal. -File photo

Pakistan has perhaps produced more cricketing families in the last six decades than any other country. Some have been low key, like Moin Khan’s brother Nadeem Khan playing a couple of Tests in the 1990s and Imran Farhat’s brother, Humanyun, keeping wickets in one Test.

Playing for a name

Of fathers, sons and cousins: Playing for a name - II

The Elahi brothers, Manzoor, Zahoor and Saleem played for short periods of time but never together as did brothers Saeed Ahmed (a brilliant batsman who played 41 Tests and also captained Pakistan) and Younis Ahmed, who played three Tests in two series split by some 16 years. Few would know that elder cousin of Danish Kaneria, Anil Dalpat, kept wickets for Pakistan briefly in the mid 1980s.The Rana brothers have a place, too. Azmat played a lone Test 10 seasons after elder brother Shafqat played the last of his five. But they are the only Pakistani cricketing family which produced a Test umpire as well. That was the late Shakoor Rana, famous for an altercation with England captain Mike Gatting for an on field violation in 1987 at Faisalabad that stood up a Test match.

The legendry Javed Miandad’s brothers played first class cricket, but it was only his sister’s son, Faisal Iqbal, who has played for Pakistan among the family. Despite a Test hundred against India at Karachi in 2006, and a near match winning innings against Australia a few years earlier in the Colombo Test, (one of eight fifties in 26 Tests), he still struggles to get back into the side, and not for lack of merit.

His batting style reminds so much of Javed though, for whom a whole book is not enough to bring out the mastermind in him, whether batting or leading. The only batsman in history to have a Test average never drop below 50 throughout his career, he has an undisputed place in world cricket’s hall of fame.

His last ball six against India is etched in cricket’s famed moments and those who saw him come down and drive three successive boundaries off Collinge to reach his hundred on Test debut at Lahore would perhaps have anticipated such a finish. He was a legend if only for his presence and his aura, yet it seemed he was always fighting for recognition from the Board, and was hard done by when captaincy was taken away from him in an appalling manner.

This generation has seen Ramiz Raja appearing on television but when I meet him my mind goes back to his elder brother, the departed Wasim. Many of this generation may be unaware that Ramiz had a brother who also played cricket for Pakistan. Perhaps it is so because, among the family members who have played for Pakistan, Wasim is the only one other than Nazar Mohammad, to be not among us anymore.

And what spectacular cricket he played, at one time probably the most exciting and stylish batsmen on the world circuit. It would perhaps reflect on his genius to reveal that Imran Khan was in awe of him, and surprised he played Test cricket ahead of him, especially when he would often play the raw but still fast Imran in the nets without his pads on. He was a left-handed batsman who hit the ball as hard as he timed it sweetly; and bowled his leg breaks languidly.

Though he’d played in a Test already, Wasim Raja was introduced to the world on the 1974 tour at Lord’s. On a pitch that had absorbed rainwater overnight he curbed his natural instincts for stroke play to fight his way to a half century against the world’s most dangerous spin bowler on rain-affected pitches, Derek Underwood.

He did his Master’s in first degree from Punjab University and came from a privileged background. He captained Pakistan under-19 and went on to play over 100 internationals, split almost evenly in Tests and ODI’s. He was a quiet rebel, temperamental and a loner at times; all the trappings of a genius. Wasim carried a calm and smiling persona on the field but had his altercations with authority, a precursor to someone like Shoaib Akhtar; like him playing less Tests than he should have.

Wasim Raja is one of the few Pakistani batsmen to have a tremendous record against West Indies, the best team in the 1970s from the time Raja began to play as a regular for Pakistan. He hit his first Test century against them in 1975, and then set the Caribbean fields on fire with more than 500 runs on the 1977 tour, including a last wicket partnership that yielded over 151 which eventually led to Pakistan saving the Test. In 11 Tests against them he made over 900 runs at an average of over 57. He would excel more in series where other batsmen failed, and in India in 1979 he scored 450 runs at 56.25, enjoying a good run against them overall.

He walked away from international cricket in his mid 30s to marry and settle in England. He taught in Caterham School for 15 years till the day he collapsed and died on the pitch while batting for Surry over-50s on Aug 23, 2006. His lasting memory for me will be when he walked onto the middle at National Stadium with his foot in plaster after a fielding accident, to allow Sadiq Mohammad, on 98, to complete a century after he had batted all of last day to save the Test. He survived three balls before being bowled by Gibbs the off spinner, his masterful footwork unable to function and was clapped all the way in and back by the West Indians and everyone who was there.

He had been there when Ramiz made his debut in 1984. Though equally stylish the younger Raja was less flamboyant. Even as he played some fine innings for Pakistan and captained the side once, Ramiz always lived under the shadow of his elder brother. Such was the privilege of being Wasim’s brother that perhaps Ramiz would not have minded.

Perhaps no other cricketing family has endured such criticism, even scorn from the public as well as the media, than the Akmal brothers. Sad in a way as all three possess talent for the game, if not for common sense and commitment. They have been branded variously as selfish, incompetent, nepotistic, all for one and one for all; yes, the three musketeers without the cause.

Yet, there was a time when of the three, Kamran and Umar were heralded as ‘finds’ when they respectively donned the Pakistan cap. But a series of uncalled for run-ins with team management and colleagues, aloofness from their duty to improve, innuendos and, on a few occasions, immature acts to keep their place or that of one of the brothers, has made them controversial. They have fallen from a position from which they could have built a name that could rank with the more proud cricket families of Pakistan.

Kamran was the first to arrive, with no indication that a bloodline was in the making. He was the understudy to Rashid Latif, who gave him good marks to replace him, and played a Test series which Rashid opted out of. But it was Moin Khan he replaced midway into India’s tour of Pakistan.

Kamran has had his moments, two of them absolutely amazing and worth the golden bat when it comes to grittiness and taking pressure. The first was in Mohali when at the end of the fourth day Pakistan were 39 runs ahead with four wickets left: Kamran at the crease on nine. By the time he left after tea he had scored 109 and added 184 added with Razzaq, who contributed only 46 during those four hours. Pakistan saved the Test given up as lost.

He did another Houdini of another kind, this time picking up Pakistan at 39/6 at Karachi again against India, and scoring a hundred which allowed them to win the Test and series.

Sent up to open in ODI’s, Kamran got hundreds as well and in a period of only six months recorded seven international hundreds.

But his performance behind the stumps deteriorated drastically on the tour of England in 2006, even though Danish Kaneria had already lost a handful of wickets because of him even before that. Over the next four years gathering the ball seemed as if he was trying to catch a cold in the Sahara desert. He missed crucial, often straightforward, chances, and a few stumpings and run outs went horribly wrong. In one innings at Sydney in 2010 he dropped Hussey three times within the space of a few deliveries. He seemed to have won back hearts with his keeping and batting in the 2009 World Twenty20 triumph, creating a world record with four stumpings in an innings, and the next one in 2010. But during the 50-over World Cup in 2011, one could bet on him missing three chances out of five, and dropping Ross Taylor twice off Shoaib Akhtar made headline news. A friend once called me and pointed out that it’s conspicuous that he would always miss the most important batsman in the opposition side. Tainted with match fixing insinuations (never proved) on the 2010 tour of England, he spent several months in the wilderness.

His survival today, it must be said, is dependent more on lack of alternatives, or rather the will of the PCB to give another a long run. And he normally finds a way back in much like rainwater through a badly repaired roof.

Like his elder brother, Umar has also turned around his fortunes for the worse. For someone who scored a century and fifty on Test debut in New Zealand, while still a teenager, finishing the three Tests with 400 runs at an average of over 57, he today has lost his place in the Test side and finds it difficult to hold on to his ODI slot. He has promised much and delivered little of his immense talent, perhaps too preoccupied at an early age playing politics for his brother Kamran’s sake. He has time on his side though, but needs to find a mentor, maybe someone like Mohammad Yousuf, who can embed the virtue of patience in him.

The third to appear, elder to Umar though, is Adnan, who today is probably a victim of the declining perception of the Akmal brand name. He has kept and batted reasonably well in Tests, and appears the more composed of the three. But when he kept wickets the Akmals became the first family where all members have kept wickets in international matches as Umar has at times kept wickets in international matches.

How long will they play and will they ever play for Pakistan together is something that nobody can answer given the way our selection works. The way Pakistan’s batting collapsed in Tests recently, it could be that Kamran could get a trial to join a rehabilitated Umar as a specialist batsman with Adnan keeping wickets. A far cry from the Mohammad brothers at Karachi in 1969, but then, they have a chance to play more than one Test together. Pakistan cricket, it seems, is always in the family way.

The writer has been writing on cricket since 1979, and has edited The Cricketer International (UK) Asian Edition as well as authored two books on World Cup history.