Akmal’s nightmare sparks memories of dreadful day at Spring Gully

by Peter Lenaghan

Pakistan’s wicketkeeper, Kamran Akmal, described it as a “scary dream”. Three dropped catches off the bowling of the leg spinner, Danish Kaneria. All from the bat of the century maker, Michael Hussey. All while keeping up to the stumps. All in front of a big crowd at the magnificent old Sydney Cricket Ground.

Akmal’s description is correct – throw in another spilled chance and a missed run out and a more nightmarish day could scarcely be imagined. Pakistan lost from a winning position and in some quarters he was singled out for blame.

I can feel some empathy for the Punjabi ‘keeper. When the catches start ending up on the grass, is it any coincidence that all of the expressions for the feelings generated are linked with the soil? “It’s like being caught in quicksand”, “you just want the ground to swallow you up” or “dig me a hole to hide in” are common refrains.

My own worst day behind the stumps came while playing in a B grade match for my former club, Spring Gully. In the second over of the day a snick came through from a right-handed opening batsman. The ball arrowed towards me, but it came through slightly higher than I expected and hit me high up on the heels of my hands. I did not get a second bite. The ball ballooned up and over my shoulder. The first slip fieldsman dived behind me but could not catch the rebound.

“It’s ok,” I told myself. “Next one, next one.” But the next delivery was agony. As the ball narrowly went past the edge of the bat it seemed to swing one way, then the other. I snatched at it and somehow clung on to the ball. “At least it didn’t go for byes,” I sighed.

A few overs later, at the same end, I was still feeling jittery. The runs were starting to flow when an attempted pull shot flew straight up, high into the air and over the batsman’s head. “Catch!” was the cry from the bowlers and the slips.

Here, I would love to be able to write that I dived at full stretch and nabbed a brilliant one hander to redeem my earlier blunder. Or, that I got a desperate fingertip to an impossible half-chance. Even just calmly and competently pocketing a dolly would have been nice. In truth, I did none of these. I did not have to move. And yet, I failed to lay a glove on it.

This was my scary dream. Above me, the sky was blue and the sunshine was golden. It was a beautiful summer’s day in Bendigo. I was camped under the ball and it seemed to take an eternity to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. The pill swirled in the air. I waited and waited, with gloves together and cupped in the classic style as I tried to look composed. My knees were knocking. The ball plummeted towards the ground and I missed it altogether, straight through the gap between my gloves and chest, off my knee and away into the on-side field for a comfortable single.

I was in a daze. “Oh no,” I thought. “That could be the easiest catch ever dropped by a wicketkeeper. Where can I hide? Get me a shovel.”

After pats on the back and soothing words from teammates the first time around, now there was stony silence from my colleagues behind square. I cannot remember what the bowler said or did, although I may have been too embarrassed to look up. His reaction was something else I did not catch. Our opponents made their feelings known and I could clearly hear the hoots of laughter coming from in front of the clubrooms. My confidence was shot. I cannot recall whether we won or lost that match. It seems I have suppressed the wrong part of the memory.

What I do remember is that after the urge to bury myself had passed, I briefly considered offering the gloves and pads to a teammate so I could sulk at mid-off. My hands trembled and each time the cherry passed beyond the batsman it was like trying to glove a red marble. Then, pride kicked in. “Bugger it,” I thought, “I’m the ‘keeper and I just need to catch the bloody thing.” Perhaps self-burial, cowardice and pigheaded resolve are the three stages of the wicketkeeper’s grieving process? It might go some way towards explaining the Pakistani vice-captain’s actions in the build up to the Hobart Test.

The ‘keeper-batsman was clearly identified as an influential figure in his team’s capitulation in the Sydney match. As Australia closed in on an unlikely victory on the game’s fourth day, Kerry O’Keeffe guffawed on ABC Grandstand that Kamran Akmal was currently about 22nd, maybe even 24th, in the running for the man of the match award. Despite Akmal being supported by his captain, Mohammad Yousuf, Peter Roebuck summed up the mood after the Test when he wrote in The Age that, “Had Kamran Akmal had even a moderate match, though, the hosts would have been crushed.”

It emerged on the Cricinfo website soon after the Test that the former Pakistan wicketkeeper, Rashid Latif, had previously submitted a report to the country’s board that urged it to give Akmal a six-month break from international cricket so he could work on a series of flaws in his technique. Osman Samiuddin reported that, “Akmal’s glovework has long become a source of worry for Pakistan.” There were also reports that Pakistan had turned down the chance in 2008 for Akmal to be tutored by the former Australia ‘keeper, Steve Rixon, because the $5000 fee was considered too high.

A replacement ‘keeper for the Third Test, the 22-year-old Sarfraz Ahmed, was sent to Australia as Akmal’s family was dragged into the mess. A report in Pakistan quoted a source saying Akmal’s infant son had been keeping the player awake late at night. Kamran Akmal, being the vice-captain and entitled to vote on the line-up for the Third Test, was asked to do the dignified thing and stand down from the team. He initially defied that request, telling reporters on Monday that he would be playing, despite Alam saying that the replacement keeper would be in the eleven. There’s that pigheaded resolve.

Then, with his older brother under pressure to resign his place in the team, Umar Akmal reportedly protested, and comically declared himself unfit for the Third Test because of a phantom back injury. Pakistan’s coach, Intikhab Alam, later told journalists that Umar was fine. For once, the use of words like “saga” and “farce” in the sports pages was merited.

Kamran Akmal’s stubbornness did not secure him a place in the team. On Wednesday, the Pakistani camp announced that the selection committee, of which Akmal is a member, had voted unanimously to drop the ‘keeper, who’s played 48 tests for his country. And yet, Ricky Ponting reckons he’ll be waiting until the toss of the coin to confirm just who is playing for Pakistan. Maybe there is one twist left in the tale.

I am still waiting to make my international debut. Maybe Andrew Hilditch was among those taking in the sights of B grade cricket in Bendigo all those years ago.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Take heart Peter

    I’ve witnessed much worse in my own modest career.

    One day, on mats, at a very small suburban field, our normally reliable ‘keeper dropped eight. This included a similar skier as yours when the batsman concerned was on 15 or so. He went on to get 117. We later found out his previous career best was 30-odd.

    He so completely lost it that when another batsmen charged down the wicket, fell over, got up, then dropped his bat, our guy still fumbled the stumping.

    Near the end of play, I tossed a ball gently to him from about 5 metres away. He even dropped that.

    It was time to have a drink or three.

  2. Superb piece, Peter, both on a personal level and in your appreciation of Akmal’s plight. If I have any influence over Andrew Hilditch, you’ll be in the team.

    I have two similar tales from my footy days, once when I dropped three marks in the goalsquare while playing at full-back in school footy, allowing De La Salle to come over the top of us, and another when I coughed up three goals late in an Ammos match against Uni Blacks, but at least we still won.

    I had a medical condition that plagued me in that match against the Blacks, and in the last quarter I fell apart. I was playing in front of a large home crowd at the unforgiving Snakepit and I felt smaller than Matty Mulkearns, our pint-sized rover.

    My saddest lament is that things might have been all right if the coach later had asked what went wrong. I could have explained. As it was, I was dropped and played in the reserves, then took six weeks off while I recovered from the condition. My confidence never returned.

    I trust Akmal will have better support.

  3. Peter Lenaghan says:

    John – thanks for your story, I have to bow down in respect for eight dropped catches, that’s a truly remarkable achievement

    Daff – if you could have a quiet word with Andrew Hilditch for me that would be much appreciated

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