The last time Sarfraz Ahmed played an One Day International against India, George W Bush was the US president, Shahid Afridi was in his twenties, and Pakistan was still hosting international cricket.
When Sarfraz Ahmed was 19, he led Pakistan to victory in the 2006 U-19 World Cup. Today, at the age of 30, he has played 70 ODIs.
When Virat Kohli was 19, he led India to victory in the 2008 U-19 World Cup. Today, at the age of 28, he has played 179 ODIs.
There is something in these numbers that represents a lot and nothing at the same time. It says a lot because Sarfraz should have played more matches for Pakistan by now. It says nothing because what is Pakistan cricket without some drama? After all, their most successful Test captain did not become a regular in the side till the age of 36.
The past, though, is irrelevant now. This Sunday, the Pakistani wicket keeper is in for his first big test as captain: Pakistan versus India at the ICC Champions Trophy.
The optimism, if there is any, for a Pakistan win against India this Sunday stems from emotions. On paper, India are clear favorites. Pakistan’s limited overs cricket has hit the literal rock-bottom thanks to a systemic decay running for years now. Yet, all of that could be forgiven and forgotten if Sarfraz somehow manages to lead his side to victory against India. That would also explain Pakistan’s romanticism with individuals.
“No captain will ever tell you that he will be satisified with a loss,” says Sarfraz, laughing and dismissing the idea that winning one out of the three group games might be more realistic. “Of course, I want my team to win all three group matches and go on to win the tournament.”
There is something relatable about him as a person too. Azhar Ali? Meh. Boring. Sarfraz Ahmed? Impatient, always looking to do something, talks a mile a minute. Just the way we like it in Pakistan.
This impulsive nature can work both ways. “He is a very vocal, in-your-face kind of a captain and you run this risk that once things get out of hand then they don’t come back,” says commentator and former Pakistan cricketer Bazid Khan of Sarfraz’s approach. This includes constantly talking to his bowlers and fielders. That’s exuberance for some but excessive for others. As Bazid points out, Sarfraz will, over time, learn to reign himself in.
It is hard to pass a verdict on Sarfraz’s ability to pull things back as captain with a very limited sample size at hand. As Bazid points out, he is in the honeymoon period of his captaincy, if there ever is one in Pakistan cricket.
With direct qualification for the 2019 World Cup on the line, the honeymoon period Bazid talks about might end quickly. After all, Pakistani fans are impatient. This is where Sarfraz needs to realise that his best route of making captaincy his own is if he scores runs. So, how does he give himself the best chance to do that?
When Azhar Ali was captain, Sarfraz batted at number five in 2016, ending up with a batting average of 60 at a strike rate of 93. But, to the surprise of many, he just demoted himself in the batting order as captain.
“I don’t think one drop in the batting order makes a huge difference,” says Sarfraz defending his new batting number. “My goal is to contribute to the team and if that happens by batting at six then I will do that.” That’s as generic — and politically correct — a response as one can get from a cricketer. It is as if he is trying to balance that in-built mischief with the burden of being Pakistan’s national captain. And it’s not like he enjoys the stature of an Inzamam or a Wasim to start running things his way from the word go.
The fact remains that Sarfraz batting at number six and trying to hit every ball is a very different role from Sarfraz batting at number four or five and playing through the middle overs.
Like most Pakistani cricketers, Sarfraz says he idolises Imran Khan. Khan’s biggest strength as captain was his belief in his own ability. He derived his authority from that sense of self-assuredness.
“If the captain is performing then he has the authority to do as he pleases and run things his way,” says Bazid. “He has to give himself the chance to do that. He can’t just rely on his keeping.” The sooner Sarfraz picks up that trait of backing his own instinct, the better it will be for his own captaincy.
Pakistan’s young captain also realizes his lack of experience in leading the team in pressure games. So, to whom does he turn to if things go out of hand in the crunch game against India? Virat Kohli, established as he is as captain, has someone like Dhoni to fall back on. Dhoni, in his time, could fall back on Sachin, Sehwag, Dravid and Ganguly.
“I am talking to the senior guys who have played a lot against India and we are planning together,” says Sarfraz. The senior guys – Hafeez and Malik to be specific – have played against India for more than a decade now. They have also captained the team and will have plenty of advice to offer. How much of it will Sarfraz be able to process, accept or reject remains to be seen.
Given the controversies Pakistani players have grown through, the latest news about the Indian team’s difficult relationship with coach Anil Kumble are likely to be brushed off as insignificant. But like so many other Pakistan-India clashes, you need that extra bit of luck to turn things around. Is this, then, a sign for Pakistan?
The India-Pakistan clash will start at 3 pm. Follow our live blog for all the updates.