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Umar Gul spoke about Pakistan’s recent ODI series loss in Australia, the failure of big names to help Pakistan win games, Umar Akmal’s continued failures and why the PCB should persist with Azhar Ali despite a poor record as ODI captain.
 
By Amir Husain (25th January, 2017)
 
In recent times, Pakistan’s shocking ODI form has been a matter of concern for the team management and fans alike. More than the results themselves, the manner in which the 1992 World Cup champions have contrived to lose games from good positions is one which is also difficult to understand.
 
Someone who is deeply troubled by Pakistan’s current malaise in the fifty over form of the game and has been part of many successful ODI squads of the past is the thirty-two-year-old Pakistan fast-bowler, Umar Gul.
 
A veteran of one-hundred and thirty ODIs where he has taken one-hundred and seventy-nine wickets for his country with best figures of 6/42 against England in 2010, Umar also holds the distinction for being the last fast bowler to take a five-wicket haul in an ODI match won by Pakistan.
 
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Umar spoke on a number of topics including Pakistan’s recent ODI series loss in Australia, the failure of big names to help Pakistan win games, Umar Akmal’s continued failures and why the PCB should persist with Azhar Ali despite a poor record as ODI captain.
 
The 3-0 loss in the Test series was a painful reminder of how difficult it is for Pakistan teams to succeed away from home. In a sense, given the ODI team’s last “away” outing in England, the chances of success in this format were always low. However, after squaring the series in Melbourne, a glimmer of hope of a revival was horrendously extinguished by a bizarre brand of cricket in the next two games which Umar Gul found difficult to explain “It is not really possible to pinpoint the reasons for the ODI series loss to Australia but from what I can see, apart from the obvious fielding lapses at crucial stages, there was an element of fatigue which caused our players to not perform at their best. Apart from that, our bowlers only performed well in patches and the type of bowling we needed in the death overs such as use of yorkers, did not materialise at all.”
 
In a recent interview, the Pakistan Test captain Misbah-ul-Haq blamed lack of preparation for the New Zealand and Australia tours as a possible reason for the team’s comprehensive losses. Whilst the ODI format offers different challenges to the players, the fact that Pakistan played just one warm-up game against mediocre opposition wasn’t the ideal scenario they would have hoped for. However, Gul believes that this cannot be held as an excuse for Pakistan’s disappointing show during the ongoing series.
 
“I do not see the excuse of lacking preparation for this series as a valid one. We all know that our players were match fit and also in the right-frame of mind as they had been playing in domestic cricket as well as in the Test series before the ODI series kicked off. I do not think that is a valid excuse and we should have simply delivered better in this ODI series against Australia.”
 
Shoaib Malik’s vast experience in ODIs which spans over two-hundred and forty matches where he has taken one-hundred and fifty-three wickets and scored over six-thousand five-hundred runs should have been a matter of great solace for the beleaguered Pakistan ODI team. Instead, the all-rounder failed to inspire and perform for his team when it was needed the most which is something of a surprise for Umar Gul.
 
“There are always high expectations from seniors when they are present in the team and they should perform as well based upon their experience. If you look at how well Shoaib Malik was placed for a big innings in the fourth ODI, it was expected that he should have converted that to a big hundred and taken Pakistan to victory but that did not happen which is not only a disappointment but also very troubling.”
 
It is a fact of Pakistan cricket that the tag “talented batsman” has never been so heavily used for any Pakistan player than it has for Umar Akmal. Dropped from the squad for reasons other than cricket since March of 2015, Umar Akmal was recently part of the ODI squad for the series against the West Indies in the UAE but only made his most recent comeback on the tour of Australia. Scores of 17, 18*, 39 and 11 in his last four ODIs on the current tour are ample evidence of his ineffectiveness on this tour and for Umar Gul, the general inability of Umar Akmal to make a mark in the Pakistan squad despite a few chances is worrying as is his apparent state of fitness for the job.
 
“Umar Akmal is one player about whom we have been saying for years that he has real talent. But the problem is that he has not been able to do justice to that talent and that has really hurt Pakistan. For someone with so much potential, it is surprising that his shot selection is not good at all. He is not a new player and has played quite a few games for Pakistan, yet he is not able to finish games for Pakistan. He needs to realise what his shortcomings are and he should also be properly mentored. The other thing which is hampering his progress is his fitness level. He seems to have gained a lot of weight and this was not the case in the past which is worrying. I have no doubt that he is giving his hundred percent on the field but fitness issues are hampering his efforts.”
 
Whilst the Pakistan ODI squad has by and large failed to rise up to the challenge on the current tour, a healthy amount of criticism has also been directed at the Pakistan ODI captain Azhar Ali. His apparent lack of leadership skills and weak strategic thinking has been touted as one of the reasons for Pakistan’s recent failures and fall in the ICC ODI ratings. Umar Gul, while accepting Azhar Ali’s frailties, does feel that the PCB needs to give the captain a fair run at this job before taking any decision on replacing him.
 
“It is a fact that Azhar Ali’s own performance is suffering but more importantly, he is not able to deliver as a captain as has been the expectation. But, he is still young and learning and I am a firm believer that instead of replacing Azhar, we should let him establish himself as captain. For that matter, anyone that the PCB appoints as a captain should be allowed ample time so that he can get to understand his players' strengths and weaknesses, and then establish a team which will serve the country for a long time in the future.”
 
There aren’t many observers of the game who would not have been impressed by the show of maturity which was far beyond his age, that Hasan Ali has exhibited in the games and that too at times of great pressure. It is, therefore, no surprise that during the 4th ODI in Sydney, Hasan Ali became only the fifth Pakistani bowler to take a five-wicket haul away against Australia, joining an illustrious list of bowlers in Wasim Akram, Shoaib Akhtar, Saqlain Mushtaq and Abdul Qadir. For Umar Gul, the youngster’s work ethic and sharpness of mind is a great example for the rest of the Pakistan bowling attack.
 
“I have really been impressed by Hasan Ali’s progress in such a short period. He possesses excellent variations and the best thing about him is that he has used that variation with great results in such a tough series against Australia. He simply has shown no signs of being afraid or overawed by the opposition or the occasion. What I really like about him is his attitude which I find completely different and better than the other bowlers. This is why he is getting wickets and is looking far better than the rest of the bowling attack on this tour.”
 
On his return to international cricket from five years in the wilderness, Mohammad Amir was rather unfairly expected to set the world on fire. His talent had been recognised as one that was destined for greatness but the intervening inactivity seems to have taken a toll but now, as Umar Gul explained, is the time to deliver.
 
“The weight of expectations on Amir’s shoulders has been very high ever since he made his international comeback almost a year ago. Whilst one could say that he had been away from top-level cricket for almost five years, he has played some cricket now and he has to start delivering or else people will start questioning his inclusion in the team. I feel that the in-swing he had and how he used to bowl close to the wicket as well as his ability to bowl yorkers has all gone missing. He has to work on all these issues if he intends to be effective for Pakistan in future.”
 
With Australia now sitting pretty with an unassailable 3-1 lead in the five-match series, it would be easy for the tourists to wallow in self-pity and go through the motions in the final game. However, quite apart from playing for pride, Umar Gul feels that the Pakistan bowlers in particular have a point to prove to the world about their viability as a top-level international side. For Umar Gul, there is no question of surrender and he will be expecting his country’s team to fight to the end when they step out on the Adelaide Oval to play the fifth ODI, “I feel that our bowlers in general have been very weak in the death overs and yorkers have been very rare. We have tried to bowl on a good length and that hasn’t worked and bouncers have been very few. I would have preferred that the bowlers would have improved and fixed their issues before the series was lost but that is gone now. Of course, the batsmen have to score runs but it’s really up to our bowlers who have to improve tremendously in the final game and try and salvage their honour and pride”, he concluded.