Sarfaraz Ahmed is back in Pakistan’s Test squad, continuing a remarkable rise from the ashes of an incomplete Test career, stunted by the burden of captaincy.
Captaincy burdens the best of players. Michael Clarke’s pronouncement that as captain he “hadn’t got off the plane” during the 2015 Ashes and Joe Root’s gaunt face after another away Ashes hiding are just two examples of the effects of the weight of leadership. Sandwiched in between those two, is part of Sarfaraz Ahmed’s story.
Despite leading Pakistan to one of the great underdog stories at the 2017 Champions Trophy and presiding over the No.1 ranked T20I team in the world, Sarfaraz’s Test record in charge is considerably more modest.
Four wins and eight defeats in 13 matches were made worse by his drop in form upon taking up the role. He averaged 25 whilst in charge of the side, as opposed to 41 before, and questions over the standard of his wicketkeeping and fitness dragged on throughout his time at the top. Indeed, had Pakistan cricket not been in one of its more stable periods, he may have found himself sacked sooner.
“When you are captain in any format, it definitely brings a lot of pressure on you and this is why it’s a big responsibility,” Sarfaraz told ESPNcricinfo in 2020. “Your main focus is on the team result and performances, and in all this you spent more time supporting your players.”
Still, there was a significant outcry to his ousting as Test captain, even going as far as a protest march in Karachi. But, quite apart from his record as Test captain, it was the rise of Mohammad Rizwan that ousted Sarfaraz as Pakistan’s first-choice keeper.
After a successful domestic season in 2019/20, Sarfaraz was included in the squad which toured England in 2020, but after unimpressive performances in their two warm-up games, he didn’t feature in any of the three Tests on that tour – Rizwan firmly in place as the number one.
Nevertheless, consigned once again to the wilderness, Sarfaraz did what many who are no longer a focal point in international cricket may deem beneath them. He got his head down, got to work and showed how much he still wanted to play cricket for his country. His most recent hundred in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, his 13th overall and fourth score of fifty plus this season, was as gritty and determined as his demeanour. In eight matches in the 2022 edition of the trophy, he averages 43.77 and is part of a
Sindh side who have won their first ever place in the final of the tournament.
Off the pitch, his aversion to controversy and genuine backing of the Pakistan team he has not been a part of for the last two years stands out. The newest talent included in Pakistan’s squad to face England, Abrar Ahmed, mentioned the encouragement of his domestic teammate in his rapid ascension to potential Test honours.
“As I started to take wickets in three to four matches in the ongoing season of the Quaid-e-Azam trophy, my fellow teammates started to tell me that your name will be in the squad,” Ahmed told the Pakistan media. “Sarfaraz Ahmed continuously said you are doing well, you will be selected.”
The respect and warmth he holds amongst his international teammates was also shown in a Twitter exchange between himself and Shadab Khan last year, where Sarfaraz asked the leg-spinner for feedback on his son’s bowling after posting a video on Twitter.
“Abdullah ne pehle saifi bhai ke dil mai meri jaga le li ab Pakistan team mai meri jaga na le jaye (Abdullah first took my place in Saifi (Sarfaraz Ahmed) bhai’s heart, now I hope he doesn’t take my place in the Pakistan team),” tweeted Shadab.
“Hahaha aisa nahe hone wala Aap aur Abdullah dono dil me sath aye the aur hamesha rahen Ge (Nothing like this, you and Abdullah both made a place in my heart together and will stay in my heart always),” responded Sarfaraz.
Whether Sarfaraz actually plays against England will depend on how Pakistan balance their side, and whether they opt to play Sarfaraz or Rizwan as a specialist batter. It would be a fitting comeback for the former captain on home soil – his 49 previous Test all happened before international cricket returned to Pakistan. Nevertheless, there is no greater praise of Sarfaraz’s character than the manner in which he has won a recall to the squad and how he is viewed by some of his former players.
In another tweet from Shadab, he summed up why he has such great affection for Sarfaraz: “He taught me how to lead, how to look after your team, how to fight for your country and your teammates. My teacher will always be my captain.”