Pakistan vs Australia: Sarfraz Ahmed's rearguard re-establishes his crisis-man credentials, marks his return as free-stroking batsman

Crisis man Sarfraz Ahmed found his mojo of yore in his vital innings of 94 on Day 1 of second Test against Australia, late cutting fast bowlers like that was the only shot he had and moving around to the spinners like the Tasmanian Devil on speed.

Hassan Cheema, October 17, 2018

Pakistan were 110-for-4 when Sarfraz walked in to bat. A victory for them against Sri Lanka would have qualified them for the semi-final of the ICC Champions Trophy. However, after Shoaib Malik was trapped by Lasith Malinga, the newly appointed captain only had the bowling all-rounders and the tail for support with Pakistan still requiring over a hundred runs.

Pakistani cricketer Ahmed Sarfraz plays a shot during day one of the second Test cricket match in the series between Australia and Pakistan at the Abu Dhabi Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi on October 16, 2018. (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP)

Pakistani cricketer Ahmed Sarfraz plays a shot during his gritty 94 against Australia. AFP

A match-winning innings later Pakistan were suddenly on-course to win their first major 50-over title in two decades. That was the coming of age for him, where he finally owned the captain’s role, and built the road for Pakistan’s success. Suddenly he was being compared to great Karachiite keepers of the past, and after that innings, even Javed Miandad. It was no surprise either.

Over the previous three years that’s exactly where Sarfraz had made his name, as Pakistan’s resident man-of-crisis. In Test cricket he had three hundreds and one ninety-odd, all in 2014; three of which came when his team was struggling to get a foothold in the match. In ODI cricket he had emerged in the last months under Misbah Ul Haq, but it was under Azhar Ali’s otherwise disappointing tenure that he flowered. Under his predecessor Sarfraz averaged over 40 with a strike rate north of 90 in ODI cricket. Thus, his innings against Sri Lanka was a continuation of a trend, a reminder that Pakistan’s captain could once again do the fire-fighting role that the likes of Misbah and Inzamam Ul Haq prior to him had done.

But that Champions Trophy innings ended up being a false dawn. While the national team, at least in coloured clothing, improved under his captaincy, Sarfraz the batsman fell off the face of the earth. By the time the ongoing series against Australia came, there were more question marks over him than over a UFO sighting. In the Asia Cup the team had regressed back to its pre-Sarfraz era self, and he could not let his bat do the talking either. Since the Champions Trophy win he has averaged 17.20 in 20 ODIs, with his lone fifty coming in a match where three other Pakistanis scored fifties too, and which still ended up in a loss thanks to a Colin de Grandhomme onslaught.

In Tests, the story was even bleaker – he had averaged 19.20 as captain, with just one fifty in 10 innings; which too came in a loss.

That was the background to today. On an atypical Abu Dhabi pitch, which offered both spin – something that Abu Dhabi usually doesn’t have till day 4 – and more surprisingly bounce – something that Abu Dhabi usually doesn’t have at all – Sarfraz walked in to rescue his team from a crisis. The Sarfraz of 2014 to 2017 would have provided hope and comfort for the Pakistan fan, but Sarfraz the captain only elicited dread. Pakistan had lost four wickets without scoring a run, were suddenly 57/5 after what had been a decent start. That is how Pakistan have historically lost series that they never should have – failing to capitalize on their chances and collapsing under pressure as soon as the shoe was on the other foot. All they had left was a T20 specialist on debut trying to play the anchor role, an extended tail, and a captain out of form and under pressure. Sarfraz had walked into day 5 of the previous Test assured of an easy win to start the home season. Less than eight hours of cricket later, he walked in to save the Test series, and perhaps a lot more.

What went through his mind is anyone’s guess; what was going through Mickey Arthur’s mind was obvious. Neither the Pakistani captain nor the coach are adept at hiding their emotions. Arthur had his head in his hands, unable to believe how a team could lose four wickets without scoring – the fourth of which came after a charge an expansive drive no less!

The expectation was that Sarfraz would buckle down, that has been his modus operandi since becoming captain. Prior to becoming captain, he had a Test batting strike rate of 73.47; since taking over that role his strike rate had been 56.93. The responsibility has weighed on him, in trying to play with “responsibility” he has curbed his natural game.

He survived until lunch with Fakhar Zaman. Sarfraz had won the toss and elected to bat, yet he walked back to the dressing after the end of the first session with a few decisions to make. Pakistan needed to bat at least a couple more hours to make the Test competitive. Pakistan had never lost a Test at Abu Dhabi under Misbah; Sarfraz, and his clubmate Fakhar, stood in the way of it being two losses in two since the old man left. His lunch wasn’t the only thing he had to chew over for the next forty minutes.

The way he walked out for the second session, it were as if the last sixteen months hadn’t happened. This was the Sarfraz of yore, late cutting fast bowlers like that was the only shot he had and moving around to the spinners like the Tasmanian Devil on speed. While Fakhar, the axe-wielding banger by reputation, trundled along at a strike rate under 50, Sarfraz batted like he was back home in one of the dusty fields of Karachi, trying to chase 300 in a limited overs game.

Pakistan had gone to lunch at 77-for-5, a score that usually elicits trench warfare in the UAE. In the ten overs after the interval Sarfraz scored 38 off 26, including 17 off a Peter Siddle over. Australia could not cope with that counter-attack. The field was spread, and runs were suddenly on offer. Siddle, usually Australia’s main choke bowler in this part of the world, did not bowl for the rest of the innings after his post-lunch spell as Pakistan rotated their way to a respectable score. It was still a hundred short of what they usually aim for in Abu Dhabi, but from wading through the danger of being bowled out for under a 100 to suddenly finding themselves within touching distance of 300 was a phenomenal effort. And it was the captain who had rescued them.

There was still one hurdle left for Sarfraz to clear. First was the fact that he has been, rightly, criticized for not converting his starts. Over the past three years in Tests, he went past 30 sixteen times, and yet only one of those innings had seen him get to 60 – a quickfire 72 against the Aussies on a sinking ship. Sarfraz didn’t have the patience/fitness/drive (delete as per your biases) to go beyond his own 40-odd in Test cricket was the claim: he was an ideal support act, never the lead was the accusation.

It matters very little that prior to this period seven of his thirteen 30+ Test scores had seen him end up beyond 70. But that was the Sarfraz of old, the berserker who nurdled and swept his way past all obstacles. If Sarfraz had lost his wicket after the post-lunch counter-attack on Tuesday, not many would have been surprised. “Typical Sarfraz” would have been the utterance, with a long sigh to boot. However, on first day of the second Test, he buckled down – by the time Fakhar got out Sarfraz had move his way to 78, his last 36 runs coming off 57 since that counter-attack – pedestrian by his standards.

Even with the tail he guided them along, making sure a second collapse didn’t happen - although his strategy of giving the strike to tail enders to give them confidence does run against cricket orthodoxy. He may have been in the desert heat, but he never relented, not even when Mitchell Starc struck him on the elbow. In the end he fell six short off his first international hundred in three years, yet this innings will live longer in the memory than most hundreds if Pakistan are somehow able to regain their fortress. Mohammad Abbas ensured that the day ended with the game in the balance, but it was Sarfraz who had made sure that Abbas even had that chance.

It’s been a long time coming, but Sarfraz Ahmed finally has a captain’s knock for Pakistan.

Updated Date: Oct 17, 2018






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