The story of former Pakistan opener Taufeeq Umar remains that of a stop-start career: at times into the team, often away from it. A left-hander with delicate drives down the ground, Taufeeq first came into recognition while representing his country as a fifteen-year old at the Lombard World U-15 Challenge in England in 1996.
Accompanying many future international cricketers in that tournament – he had five from his own nation who would represent Pakistan in the future – Taufeeq soon rose as a top order bat to find himself at the highest stage of the game.
In August 2001 arrived the moment of glory when the southpaw with a high backlift made his Test debut against Bangladesh in Multan. Opening in the company of the more established Saeed Anwar aided in settling the early nerves of a first-timer – it also helped that the visitors had been shot out for a meagre 134 while batting first – and while his experienced partner rushed his way to a tone-setting 101 off merely 104 balls, Taufeeq occupied the crease for a much longer 163 deliveries to hit 104.
A lengthy opening stand of 168 with Anwar announced the arrival of a mature left-hander who had turned 20 only two months before the giant leap to international cricket came. Taufeeq possessed a neat punch and cut off the back-foot, something which his upcoming innings in top-flight cricket would testify pleasingly.
Inevitably, an ODI debut soon knocked on his doors; during the tri-series also involving Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe in Sharjah in October 2001, Taufeeq opened for the eventual winners alongside Shahid Afridi – the faith in the former mingled with the latter’s thrashing abilities as opener pushing down Anwar to number three in the order.
Sadly, Taufeeq’s participation remained restricted to the first two games – he fell for 10 and 18, not utilising useful starts both times – and that started a journey where he would constantly find himself switched between the playing eleven and the substitutes’ sheet or a fair distance away from the squad altogether.
Though he continued to make merry in the longer format of the game, Taufeeq next played an ODI only just more than a year later. In between, he found the potential success in Test match cricket, anticipating which he was inducted into the Test line-up at a relatively younger age.
By the time his second stint as a one-day batsman came calling, Taufeeq had notched up four half-centuries and another hundred – a six-hour innings of 111 against Zimbabwe at Harare. His second innings 88, the highest individual score of that innings, against an Australian bowling of high repute – there were Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee, among others – at Colombo in 2002 was a display of sheer quality in a match which Pakistan lost by only 41 runs while chasing 316.
Pakistan found rich returns from persistent investment in the Lahore-born Taufeeq when they toured South Africa – the hosts of the 2003 World Cup – in the immediate past before the marquee event began. Enjoying the true pace and bounce of the South African tracks to the fullest, Taufeeq returned a home a proud man having championed the likes of Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini in their own backyard.
Though he threw away twin stable starts to depart for 39 in both innings at Durban, Taufeeq showed what he had learnt by falling to both pace and spin in the first Test. After the hosts posted a mammoth 620 in the first innings in the next match at Cape Town, he slammed a memorable 135 out of a total of 252 which the visitors managed to put on the scoreboard.
As no other batsman reached fifty, Taufeeq played with grit and solidity to stand as the thorn in South Africa’s flesh. Pure in his defences and clean in his drives, he scripted yet another Test match ton to confirm his worth to a side whose opening combinations had already had them in respectable trouble in the recent past; and when Pakistan followed on for the second time in as many matches on the tour, Taufeeq rose to the occasion yet again with a 67 to become one of only four batsmen to reach double figures.
All his contributions on that visit went in vain – Pakistan endured innings defeats in both matches – but when South Africa reciprocated with a tour late in 2003, he again had answers to the questions posed by a set of bowlers again including Pollock and Ntini. An aggregate of 313 runs at 78.25, including a 111 in a winning cause, lifted Taufeeq above Pakistan’s other tried and tested openers of the millennium.
In between his expected success in five-day cricket, Taufeeq found life hard in ODIs. Only a sporadic good score and inconsistency meant he was dropped from the side following the tri-series in Sri Lanka after the 2003 World Cup, where too he suffered a lean patch despite a smooth journey of the African nation until then. Taufeeq played only five more ODIs after that – one each in 2004 and 2005, and three post his latest comeback in 2011 – and ended a disappointing run of limited-overs cricket with a lowly average of 24 and merely three fifties in 22 games.
Soon came a time when he would also have to lose his place in the Test squad. An unpredictably dry period following the hammering of the South Africans at home in 2003 meant Taufeeq faced the axe in 2006. The seeds of his exit were sown as early as in 2004, when the selectors dropped him for the tour of Australia following an indifferent one year; two Tests out of three in India the following year where again Taufeeq failed to deliver, and a sole game in England in 2006 with below-par scores meant he was discarded.
A return to the team in 2010 saw him slowly regain his former consistency, his first hundred in his second outing coming in his twelfth innings, which was in 2011; and just four innings later, he targeted Sri Lanka to smash his maiden double hundred – a masterful 236 at Abu Dhabi – and become only the seventh opener from his country and the first in 19 years – to a Test double ton.
A huge knock due for ages had finally pleased his fans, and Taufeeq kept that going with another century – this time a fluent 130 in Dhaka in 2011. Thirteen innings later, however, history repeated itself – with a highest score of 65 following his seventh and final Test hundred, yet again, Taufeeq was shown the door.
Destiny had only one more Test left in store for him, when, for the third time in his career, he had a comeback match; at Dubai against New Zealand in 2012, scores of 16 and 4 sealed it for one final time.
Taufeeq never played for Pakistan again. The initial promise that a talented youngster brought as a 20-year old in 2001 had faded away many a time in a disturbed career of more uncertainties rather than shining glory. But orthodox batting and a flawless technique always ensured that aficionados of opening batsmen – and particularly Pakistan fans – were left appeased by Taufeeq Umar and his game.Published 28 Aug 2017, 10:57 IST