The curious case of Pakistan's controversial cricketer Umar Akmal

From corrupt conduct to disciplinary sanctions, Umar Akmal faces the most serious crisis of his career. Can the 29-year-old turn a new leaf?

Pakistan wicketkeeper-batsman Umar Akmal has once again found himself in troubled waters.   -  AFP

Earlier this month, Umar Akmal, the Pakistan batsman, chose not to exercise the option of referring his case to the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB's) anti-corruption tribunal after he was charged by the Board for violation of the anti-corruption code. He had failed to report to the relevant authority approaches by individuals for “corrupt conduct.”

He would now have to await a sanction, which could be a six months’ ban, or a lifetime ban, or anything in between. Given that he’s chosen not to contest the PCB’s charges, he could end up with a lenient sentence.

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Umar has generated a number of controversies in the past, some frustrating, some funny. But this latest indictment is the most serious of them all. Ever since he burst on to the scene as a 19-year-old and heralded as a potential star for his flamboyant strokeplay and panache, Umar has been within or in the periphery of the Pakistan set-up.

For his inconsistency, he has been sidelined at times, but given the promise he still holds as a batsman, a national-team recall seems never far away. This latest episode, however, is the hardest jolt yet, and it remains to be seen how he emerges on the other side of it.

Controversial

His image has been tarred by frequent run-ins with authorities. In 2017, he had a fallout with then head coach Mickey Arthur that resulted in a three-match ban and a fine; in 2016, he was involved in a brawl in a theatre in Faisalabad, and received a fine; and in 2014, he was pulled up for rash driving.

Although a member of the Pakistan limited-overs set-up for the most part in the last decade, Umar was left out of the squad for the ICC Champions Trophy in 2017 for failing fitness tests; a few weeks later, he found himself ejected from the central contract as well.

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Now, he is having to endure the ignominy of being linked to the dark world of bookies, corruption and fixing. Although there is a robust anti-corruption unit in place in most prominent T20 leagues and in international cricket, corrupt approaches seem ubiquitous.

Bangladesh star all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan was banned from all forms of cricket for two years for breaching ICC's anti-corruption code.   -  AFP

 

Within the last 12 months alone, two well-known international cricketers have been punished for fixing-related corruption; former Pakistan opener Nasir Jamshed was sent to prison last month after an investigation, and Bangladesh all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan was banned from playing cricket for two years by the Bangladesh Cricket Board – with 12 months suspended - for not reporting approaches by a bookie.

South African batsman Gulam Bodi was sentenced to five years in prison, and cricketers Indian domestic cricketers C. M. Gautam and Abrar Kazi were arrested by the police and then let off on bail for fixing-related offences.

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Despite the fear of scrutiny and humiliation, cricketers seem to be falling into the trap of bookies, seemingly lured in elaborate ways. According to a report in Deccan Herald, the Bengaluru city police commissioner Bhaskar Rao said bookies use the method of honey-trap and then blackmail cricketers to do their bidding.

And as could be gauged by the Karnataka Premier League probe, it’s not just the cricketers but team owners who are in it, too. In such a scenario, the players’ vulnerability is high.

It is especially high in global T20 leagues, especially in the Indian subcontinent. Shakib and Bangladesh batsman Mohammad Ashraful received sanctions for corrupt approaches or activities pertaining to the Bangladesh Premier League, and a number of Pakistani cricketers – including Sharjeel Khan, Khalid Latif, and left-arm fast bowler Mohammad Irfan – received sanctions for those related to the Pakistan Super League.

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The Indian Premier League hasn’t been exempt from it, either, as India fast bowler S. Sreesanth and two others were banned by the BCCI for fixing-related corruption in 2013.

Danish Kaneria in 2018 admitted to having indulged in spot-fixing in domestic cricket in England, six years after being banned for life for it. It was a 40-over game played in 2009. In 2014, Lou Vincent, the New Zealand batsman, admitted dabbling in it as well, in another 40-over domestic game in England – in 2011.

“My name is Lou Vincent and I am a cheat,” he said in a statement when spilling the beans.

His more accomplished New Zealand team-mate, Chris Cairns, endured a tough trial in the U.K. after being accused of perjury, but he was found not guilty. Cairns, those who testified against him said had asked other cricketers to under-perform in cricket matches.

Danish Kaneria leaves after appearing before the integrity committee at the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore on August 15, 2011.   -  AFP

 

Brendon McCullum, during his Spirit of Cricket speech in June 2016, said his testimony at the trial against Cairns was leaked in the press. He said, “How can the game's governing body (the ICC) expect players to co-operate with it when it is then responsible for leaking confidential statements to the media?

It goes without saying that if players do not have confidence in the organisation, they will be reluctant to report approaches and the game is worse off.”

What next for Umar

Umar is likely to be banned from playing cricket for a relatively short period. For a batsman of such promise, he hasn’t lit the world alight. He has just played 16 Tests in his decade-long career, and his limited-overs stats seem average.

To be sure, flashes of brilliance have kept him afloat. But perhaps it’s time for him to turn a new leaf. As Misbah-ul-Haq, the head coach and chief selector, said, “Umar has to decide himself [where he goes from here], show discipline and focus on his cricket.” He’s still only 29.

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