In an era where wicket-keepers have become the mainstays of their respective batting line-ups around the world, Pakistan continues to languish at the lowest end of the production line of wicket-keeper and batsman all-rounder.
The last wicket-keeper to score a Test century for Pakistan before today was Kamran Akmal, who achieved this feat at Karachi’s National Stadium five years ago. And now, the jinx has finally been broken by the newest member of the exalted street fighter’s club in Karachi – Sarfaraz Ahmed.
Sarfaraz is playing in his eighth Test and these matches have spread over four and a half years which in itself is a story. But the bigger story is the re-emergence of Sarfaraz from the doldrums. His first exposure in the longest format was in January 2010 at Hobart, Pakistan succumbed to an innings defeat.
Sarfaraz was drafted in the team on an SOS call after Kamran Akmal had dropped in one innings as many catches as all Pakistan keepers combined in Test history in the previous match at Sydney! Kamran returned for the ill-fated England tour of 2010 and couldn’t score a run to save his life in six Tests against Australia and England on the tour. Finally, the selectors seemingly had enough but the wicket-keeping gloves stayed firmly in the Akmal family’s grip as Kamran’s younger sibling Adnan debuted against South Africa the same year in the UAE.
Adnan, though a steady keeper, hardly made a sustained impact with the bat and was left out of the team that toured South Africa for a three Test match series in early 2013. Sarfaraz replaced Adnan but found the going extremely tough as Pakistani batsmen were Steyn-ed in almost every innings of the series to crash to an ignominious 0-3 whitewash.
It seemed that the Sarfaraz experiment was over despite a facile 40 in his last innings. After getting the axe following the South African tour, I felt that the Karachi keeper, despite his apparent talent, was simply not cut for the demands at the highest stage.
The same year, Pakistan had more ignominy coming their way as minnows Zimbabwe toppled them in the Harare Test and Adnan, who had replaced Sarfaraz in the line-up, stuttered all the way up to the Abu Dhabi Test at the turn of the year. A hand injury forced him out of the last two Test of the series, paving way for a Sarfaraz comeback.
But we need to pause for a minute here...
During a Ramazan T20 tournament staged in Karachi’s Moin Khan Academy last year, I kept a close eye on Sarfaraz as he led the Omar Associates in the final of the tournament against a formidable Port Qasim Authority team that included many Pakistani internationals.
I was at close proximity to the boundary rope and could hear the mutterings, cajoling and screaming of the players inside the playing arena. Sarfaraz, who was leading the team, was easily the loudest of them all and was getting incensed for almost no reason all the time; he was either arguing with the umpires or hurling some choicest words at erring fielders.
I was extremely irritated by his behaviour and what seemed like a frustrated approach. I remember telling a friend who was next to me that Sarfaraz was a bechara and how he has squandered the opportunities at the highest level and now can only express his frustration at his fellow and perhaps hapless teammates.
Attending the final was the tournament director and the future team manager of Pakistan, Moin Khan. I walked up to Moin and told him what I thought of Sarfaraz; Moin nodded and at the same time made a telling observation.
“See, he is yet to play in UAE, in the four Tests thus far, he has only been exposed to extremely tough conditions against Australia and South Africa. I hope he gets a chance in his own conditions and gets some confidence from the team management since I know his real worth.”
As luck would have it, Moin was installed as the manager of the team and when Adnan broke his hand in Abu Dhabi, he and the team management decided to ‘test’ Sarfaraz in conditions similar to home.
But in his first innings on return in the second Test of the series at Dubai the woes returned and Sarfaraz returned to the pavilion after a seven run contribution. By the time he took to the crease in the second innings Pakistan was rapidly nearing a defeat. Sarfaraz was set to play perhaps his last Test innings as surely a failure there would have brought to an end his dreams and aspirations in the longest format.
The situation that was tailor-made for another failure was turned on its head by Sarfaraz’s resilience; finally the ‘talent’ emerged and, in a lost cause, the street fighter eked out 74 runs to save his career.
In the following Test at Sharjah, Moin played a master stroke by asking Misbahul Haq to send Sarfaraz at number five as Pakistan aimed to chase a 302 run target in the last two sessions of the play. The confidence gained from the Dubai effort was fully utilised by Sarfaraz with 46 ball 48 runs that gave the hosts the all-important momentum to stifle the Sri Lankans on their way to a historic win.
Despite the triumphant return, Sarfaraz was, surprisingly, left out of the team for both the Asia Cup and the WorldT20. But no one could take his Test berth away and in the first Test of the on-going series, the form, confidence and the stroke-play of Sarfaraz was spell binding especially as the senior batsmen around him groped hopelessly against Rangana Herath in Galle.
Two 50s in the match gave Sarfaraz the perfect platform as he came out to bat yesterday at the SSC. Pakistan was in a familiar precarious position, reeling at 140/5. Sarfaraz’s Karachi club and team buddy Asad Shafiq was at the crease with him and the two added 93 crucial runs to bring Pakistan back in the game.
Today, he had the tail for company and rather than farming strike, he reposed his trust in Abdur Rehman and Wahab Riaz. Sarfaraz kept the scoreboard ticking and reached 90 when Wahab fell.
Now the strike was with Sarfaraz and Sri Lankan pacer Chanaka Welegedara ran in. Sarfaraz knew that there wasn’t much left on the other end of the batting crease, it was almost now or never. And in no uncertain terms he mowed the first two balls of the over to the square-leg fence – one went for a four and the second one crucially went for a six. Yes, that magical moment had well and truly arrived; Sarfaraz was now a 100 not out. A Pakistani keeper of worth had finally triumphed against the demons of the past.
The loud shriek of excitement from the keeper could be heard even in Hobart, Jo’Burg and Centurion.
As a cameraman of the broadcasters switched over to the Pakistan pavilion, I started searching for Moin. The camera panned left from right and as the shot was about to finish, I spotted Moin standing in the right corner sporting a big smile with his hands aloft and clapping hysterically. The words of Moin from that Ramazan evening reverberated in my ears.
“Sarfaraz has a lot of talent, give him confidence and give him a few games to settle in his own conditions, I know his worth.”
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