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The quiet rise and rise of Sarfraz Ahmed

The quiet rise and rise of Sarfraz Ahmed

Among the many woes of being a Pakistani cricket fan is the glorious uncertainty associated with Pakistan cricket and, in particular, the batting department. As former England captain Nasser Hussain aptly put it once, “one is never too sure which Pakistan is going to turn up” for a match.

But if there is one thing that has become almost a surety with Pakistan’s batting it is the inability to find a reliable opening pair. Often Pakistan has had to resort to makeshift openers to do the job. The 2015 World Cup was a classic example of that. With Hafeez ruled out courtesy an injury, Nasir Jamshed was tipped as the miracle everyone was waiting for despite his vulnerability against the short ball.

However, Nasir’s performance — two ducks and a single run in three matches combined with some abysmal fielding — almost sealed Pakistan’s chances in the tournament.

All this while, a rather overlooked diminutive man, Sarfraz Ahmed, sat in the pavilion waiting for an opportunity to play. His exclusion from the playing XI baffled fans and critics alike. The team management, in a fix due to lack of options, gave Sarfaraz the green signal to play his first match against South Africa and that, too, as an opener.

Recalling this opportunity Sarfraz says: “I was hoping that Pakistan would lose the toss and South Africa would opt to bat first, but South Africa decided to field first after winning the toss due to overcast conditions. I was nervous, naturally, as it was my first game in the World Cup, and that too as an opener. However, Mushtaq Ahmad really encouraged me to just go out there and play my natural game.

“The first ball I faced of Dale Steyn was a zipper outside off stump and I was beaten for pace. At that moment I thought to myself that there is no point in worrying about how I will cope here. I just have to believe in myself and that I can do this.”

Next over, Kyle Abbott ran in from the other end and bowled his second ball fuller and dipping in. This time Sarfraz latched on it and flicked it away for a four. It was not the boundary but the spirit with which it was played that set the stage for a man determined to show guts and grit so lacking in the team. From there on there was no holding back. Sarfraz found his comfort zone against J.P. Duminy when he smashed him for three sixes in the over — two over deep midwicket and one over cover. The direction of the match was then decided. Even though his innings ended at 49, Sarfraz showed everyone how it is done by matching aggression with aggression.

When questioned on his long omission from the side, the management simply stated that he lacked the technique to play on the bouncy tracks of Australia and New Zealand — a reasoning that was contradicted by what everyone saw against South Africa. Sarfraz then went on to score 101 in 124 balls in the match against Ireland, an innings that was indicative of his versatility, with only six boundaries and a masterly display of a rare art in Pakistan, i.e. rotation of the strike. Pakistan with a reputedly high dot ball percentage has suffered in the shorter formats due to this very reason — a lack of intent to score by playing the typical slog-or-block cricket with very little to offer in terms of improvisation and strike rotation.

The greatness of a player is manifested in his ability to rise against the odds and if one man has done it more in recent Pakistani cricket history than anybody else, it is Sarfraz. Underutilized by the management, in the last three years he has played mostly at the No 7 position. However, in the recent series against England, Sarfraz was promoted to bat at No 5. This elevation in position elevated his performance. He scored two half centuries, a century at Lords, followed by that match-winning knock of 90 in 73 balls to set up a brilliant chase of 303 runs in the solitary victory of the ODI series.

In the first three ODIs of the English series, most of Sarfraz’s runs were scored off spinners Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, often sweeping both past square leg and fine leg, thus proving his ability to play spin with ease like Miandad. With a sharp eye to pick the length of the fast bowlers and great footwork against the spinners, Sarfraz looks like the most versatile batsman in the Pakistani line-up who can play at any position. Although Pakistan lost the ODI series 4-1, Sarfraz emerged as the biggest win for the team as he scored 300 runs in the five matches, with an average of 60.

In the longer format, his performance has been equally inspiring. In the last two years, he has averaged 54 runs in tests with a century against New Zealand, Australia and Sri Lanka each — thus confirming his rare all-round talent.

Pakistan cricket is often marred by politics, lobbying and nepotism. A change in management and structure brings new faces and new faces bring new preferences. For a player to rise above such politics and maintain a positive attitude speaks volumes of his strength of character.

Leading the side in the only T20 match in England, Sarfraz demonstrated great leadership skills when he, along with the coach, planned and executed the strategy to restrict England to 135 runs. It was a remarkable effort as Pakistan had conceded 60 runs in the first five overs. The chase was even more convincing and Sarfraz recalls: “I told the boys, play as you do in domestic matches, without any pressure of the magnitude of the occasion.”

Sarfraz used Imad Wasim, the man in form, to bowl three consecutive overs to attack right through. He also brought in Wahab, who uses the slower ball brilliantly, in the second half of the innings. His own form has been stellar as he was awarded the ‘Man of the Match’ prize in the second T20 against the West Indies when he scored a crucial 46 in 32 balls to take the team to a competitive total of 160. That innings sealed yet another T20 series win for Pakistan and eventually a clean sweep against the reigning world T20 champions. He now has four wins in four matches under his leadership.

Sarfraz’s story is of a man daring to challenge the conventions to achieve his dream. He talks about the early struggle in his life: “I initially started my career as a leg-spinner, but then I did not really enjoy that so I decided to become a wicket-keeper as I was really inspired by Moin Khan.”

The story of most Pakistani cricketers is one that involves humble beginnings with little or no support from their families in pursuing cricket as a career. It was not any different for Sarfraz. “I used to play cricket after school without my father’s consent. He kept telling me to stop playing as he believed there was no future in this sport. I would tidy my clothes before heading home so he would not find out what I had been up to but I did not give up my one passion so easily.”

Sarfraz also showed this passion in the Pakistan Super League where he took the most under-rated team, Quetta Gladiators, to the final. “I think it is very important for a captain to develop a good relationship with his teammates and understand them well,” he says. His ability to handle some of the biggest stars in the game is what bodes well for the future leadership of Pakistani cricket.

Every cricket expert has been moaning over how the mindset and skill-set of our batsmen is half a century behind modern-day cricket. Perhaps Sarfraz Ahmed is the example and role model who will inspire other players in the team and future cricketers of Pakistan to have the belief and the skills to make Pakistan a top team in all formats of the game.

The writer is a sports analyst and television host

She tweets @ZAbbasOfficial

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 9th, 2016

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