“Sarfaraz is like oxygen for this team and any captain would consider him lucky if he has a player like him,” remarked the then Pakistan Test captain Misbah-ul-Haq in 2014. And the fact is that Sarfaraz in the early period of his international career was just that for the Pakistan side. He was the ideal ‘street-fighter’ type character that Pakistan needed to take over the role that Moin Khan used to do so well in his heyday.
In addition to his ability to stand his ground against tough opposition, Sarfaraz Ahmed was also seen as a viable option for the position of Pakistan captain in all three formats. His success as an Under-19 World Cup winning captain allowed him to be initially appointed as skipper for the T20I side in April 2016. His leadership abilities were soon recognised further when he was awarded the captaincy of the ODI side in February 2017, ironically taking the reins from a beleaguered Azhar Ali.
The retirements of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan in the middle of 2017 saw a huge vacuum being created in the Pakistan Test side but Sarfaraz was seen as the man of the hour and his elevation to captain of Pakistan’s Test side was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts which came to fruition in July 2017. Sarfaraz may have been a breath of fresh air when it came to his aggressive style of captaincy in limited overs, but Test cricket demanded a different mode of leadership. This was an uncomfortable fact which Sarfaraz would soon find out as Pakistan lost their first series to Sri Lanka on ‘home’ turf in UAE.
The alarm bells started ringing and murmurs of discontent started to appear, but then the Champions Trophy 2017 arrived and for a brief time in Sarfaraz’s reign as Pakistan captain, there was hope that he was on his way to bigger and better things. The manner in which his underrated ODI side overcame hurdle-upon-hurdle to take the Champions Trophy was amazing and surprising in many ways and back then Sarfaraz was the golden boy and sat atop the world.
Whilst Pakistan continued to do well in T20Is, the losses were mounting on the ODI and Test fronts and Sarfaraz’s position was becoming untenable with every passing defeat. His public-relations disasters in South Africa didn’t help nor did his inability to keep himself in shape – all of which were slowly turning a would-be Pakistan saviour into the object of ridicule.
The ODI team was struggling and looked like it lacked ideas, energy and leadership, whilst Sarfaraz’s Test team looked like a team heading in the wrong direction. The pressure was intensifying on Sarfaraz and the cracks were appearing. The Sarfaraz Ahmed star was fading and he needed to turn things around quickly.
In former Pakistan Head Coach Mickey Arthur, Sarfaraz had a sympathiser but the inability to make it to the semifinals at the 2019 World Cup proved to be Mickey’s own undoing and once he was removed by the PCB, Sarfaraz’s days at the helm appeared to be numbered as well.
Whilst the new team management in the shape of Misbah-ul-Haq as Head Coach and Chief Selector initially offered their support to Sarfaraz, it was widely assumed that Sarfaraz’s next loss would be his last as skipper and the embarrassing 3-0 loss at home to Sri Lanka in the T20I series was just that.
Sarfaraz's fall from grace was thus completed after PCB could no longer hold off due to stinging criticism from all quarters, including calls for action from members of the Pakistan government. Sarfaraz was duly sacked as captain of the Test and T20I sides on 18 October.
The PCB were really left with no choice, as Sarfaraz’s body language disintegrated, his leadership was non-existent and his own form and confidence suffered. It was clearly time for new faces and new ideas from different captains. The experienced Azhar Ali was appointed as Test captain in his place, who Sarfaraz had curiously replaced as ODI captain in 2016 and Pakistan’s best batsman Babar Azam was appointed as captain of Pakistan’s T20I side.
Azhar Ali’s elevation to captaincy in the Test format was simply a matter of “if not him, then who?” style of thinking by the PCB. Add to that the fact that he has always been a trusted confidante of Misbah-ul-Haq and a man who has courted no controversies, then the choice is not all that difficult to fathom. Azhar’s recent Test stats are not that fantastic with his last Test series versus South Africa yielding just 59 runs in three matches. Azhar will be considered a safe option by the PCB, someone who can provide stability and leadership to the Test team after a period of uncertainty and below-par performances.
In Azam’s appointment as T20I captain, PCB do seem to have taken a leap of faith. The 25-year-old’s batting star has in recent times been hyped and his batting credentials are impeccable. What is not very clear is whether he has the capabilities to lead a Pakistani outfit, especially with the T20 World Cup in 2020 as the stated target. His current captaincy experience in the T20 sphere seems to be limited with his side Central Punjab losing four out of five games in the ongoing National T20 Cup. However, given his batting credentials, Pakistan will take solace from Babar’s ability to lead from the front, a complaint which dogged Sarfaraz for most part of his reign as captain.
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