When the going gets tough for a cricketer, he has two options in front of him – get even more guarded and take every step with caution or come out all guns blazing. Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed chose the latter and it has come at the perfect time for him and the team.
The pressure was on Sarfraz and his boys. Pakistan had failed to win the last four Tests in the UAE following a nail-biting draw in the Dubai Test against the Aussies.
That result had come on the back of a disastrous Asia Cup campaign that saw complete failures of star names like Fakhar Zaman, Sarfraz the batsman, keeper and captain, along with pacers Mohammad Amir and Hasan Ali.
The scrutiny over Sarfraz’s leadership had reached such an level that chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq had to come out and back Sarfraz’s captaincy.
The skipper was also criticised, in a sense, by coach Mickey Arthur for not bowling top paceman Mohammad Abbas first up on the fifth and final day of the Dubai Test despite being told to do so by him.
That decision was seen as a critical mistake as Australia batsmen Usman Khawaja and Travis Head got set and the Baggy Greens fought for a draw.
The keeper’s batting had hit an all-time low. Before the Abu Dhabi Test, Sarfraz had batted 32 times across formats in 2018 and had just two fifties – one of them against Scotland in a T20.
And his keeping began to slip during the Asia Cup and in the Dubai Test. His body language was that of a man with no conviction in his actions.
To add more misery, Pakistan lost four wickets for zero runs on the opening morning of the second Test in the UAE capital against a charged-up Aussies. There was the debutant Zaman batting at the other end with off-spinner Nathan Lyon spinning a web around the Pakistan batsmen.
It was more than enough to break any player.
Faced with such adversity, Sarfraz played the most critical innings of his career as a batsman and leader. His 94-run knock was all about intent and not letting Australia’s bowlers settle even for a handful of overs.
His runs came from 129 deliveries with seven hits to the fence; he reached his fifty from 52 balls.
He took it upon himself to attack Lyon. He routinely charged down the wicket to the offie and on occasions made no attempt to play along the ground. It was a high-risk strategy.
Against part-time leg spinner turned frontline bowler Marnus Labuschagne, Sarfraz cut the ball late to accumulate his runs. It was an innings reminiscent of the Sarfraz of the 2014/15 season when he hit two tons, a 90 and an 80.
Whatever the result of the Abu Dhabi Test, his innings on Tuesday has brought the belief back in Sarfraz’s cricket. His catch of Usman Khawaja down the leg side late in the day was proof that he had exorcised some of the demons and was ready to take full charge of the team once again.
Reports from Pakistan suggested it was on his insistence that Mohammad Hafeez was brought into the team even though coach Arthur wasn’t a fan of that idea.
Though he got proven right in the first Test as Hafeez scored a ton, took a wicket and also didn’t attract the attention of the umpires over his bowling action, Sarfraz couldn’t assert himself as his own form was poor.
Now he has scored big runs in a crucial moment of a deciding ‘home’ Test. With the World Cup not too far, Sarfraz has reaped the rewards of backing his instincts and asserting himself on the pitch. This is his team and Sarfraz has truly taken charge.
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