Sarfraz Ahmed - Pakistan cricket's biggest positive in 2014
Pakistan cricket has a glorious history as far as wicket keepers are concerned, with the likes of Wasim Bari, Moin Khan and Rashid Latif serving the country successfully for long spells in the past.
Their successor, Kamran Akmal, made a breakthrough entrance into the team and continued to perform consistently, up until that dreaded Test match in Sydney in January 2010. Kamran failed to hold on to four catches and also missed a run-out, due to which Australia were able to seal a highly unlikely victory.
Ever since that horrid day, Pakistan’s wicket keeping standards have experienced a major downfall. Kamran was replaced by his younger brothers, Umar and Adnan, who proved to be just as incompetent behind the stumps. Not only were the wicket keepers struggling with the gloves on, they also significantly failed to produce results with the bat. In this day and age, where it is almost essential for a wicket keeper to have a sound understanding of the art of batting, team Pakistan’s balance as a batting unit suffered immensely due to this dreadful issue.
It can be argued that a good wicket-keeping batsman can be the difference between two strong teams in this modern era. Take for example the success of Adam Gilchrist for Australia and how he completely revolutionised the role of a wicket keeper. Taking his lead, many others have epitomised this position, such as Sri Lanka’s living legend Kumar Sangakkara and India’s captain, cool Mahendra Singh Dhoni. It can be safely stated that Australia, Sri Lanka and India have won numerous games and tournaments by having the luxury of extremely talented wicket-keeping batsmen in their respective squads.
Similarly, it was very important for Pakistan to find a capable wicket-keeper who could add value to the ever so fragile Pakistani batting line-up. Several keepers were tried and tested, yet matters only seemed to deteriorate until one memorable day in January 2014. Pakistan had to chase down an excess of 300 runs on the fifth day of the final Test match against Sri Lanka, in Sharjah, in order to level the series. Younis Khan and Azhar Ali were set on the crease, when the former lost his wicket to Sri Lankan captain Angelo Mathews. At 97 for three, with more than 200 runs to chase down and that too at a rate close to five runs an over, it seemed impossible for the men in green to end up as victors.
However, the universe had different plans for Pakistan, as in walked Sarfraz Ahmed at number five, who attacked the Sri Lankan bowling right from the word go. Sarfraz accumulated 48 runs in just 46 deliveries, adding 89 runs in a vital partnership with Azhar Ali. This counter punch knock eased the pressure off team Pakistan as Azhar Ali and Misbahul Haq went on to secure a memorable win with relative ease.
While Azhar and Misbah were lauded for this amazing feat, Sarfraz remained at a substantial distance from the limelight. However, the limelight couldn’t be kept away from Sarfraz for long, as he went on to score a colossal tally of runs in 2014, breaking records and winning matches for Pakistan.
Sarfraz scored three half centuries and a century in two Test matches against Sri Lanka, in Sri Lanka; a tour in which Pakistan failed miserably, having won only a single ODI in all international fixtures. It did not stop for Sarfraz there, as he scored an unforgettable game changing century against the Australians in Dubai, taking on the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle.
In the following Test series against New Zealand, Sarfraz capped off his season with a final century in the second Test, once again digging Pakistan out of an extremely tough situation in a match that ended in a draw.
To say that Sarfraz has made 2014 his year is an understatement. While he still requires some room for improvement in the wicket keeping department, here are six reasons why Pakistani supporters should appreciate Sarfraz’s efforts and be grateful for the void he has filled in the Pakistan team.
1. He plays with a lot of intent
Whenever Sarfraz Ahmed is out there in the middle with a bat in his hands, his determination to score runs and keep the scoreboard ticking is more than evident. He plays a very dynamic brand of cricket, capitalising on his strengths, wearing his heart on his sleeve. His style of batting was much needed in the Pakistani batting line-up, as most Pakistani batsmen tend to play defensively and dig themselves in a hole, unable to cope with the pressure.
2. He has an aggressive nature
The one major criticism Misbahul Haq has received over the years as captain of Pakistan is his defensive approach to captaincy. This defensive mind-set has also taken a toll on the Pakistani batsmen over the years. They seem to be a very under confident lot, unable to back themselves out in the field. Sarfraz is the exact opposite of that. Every time he steps out to bat, he plays his natural game taking charge towards the bowler. As stated earlier, Sarfraz provides that crucial counter aggression that the current Pakistani team severely requires. The way he bravely played his shots against Mitchell Johnson in the recently concluded Test series (his century making shot over the slip cordon in particular) warrants the fact that he is a fearless batsmen who plays for the team and has full faith in his ability.
3. He is always looking to improve
Sarfraz has been in the mix of the team since quite a while now and struggled to make a mark before 2014. His batting technique looked flawed and his wicket keeping still needs a fair bit of improvement. However, the evolution of Sarfraz’s batting over the past year proves the fact that he is constantly trying to up his game, in an attempt to win more games for his country. Spending extensive periods of batting in the middle this season, Sarfraz has mastered his stroke play by continuously timing the ball sweetly in his areas of strength (his sweep shot in particular). With some confidence under his belt, I believe he will only get better as time goes on.
4. He is a potential opening batsman
Since the past decade and a half, Pakistan cricket has seriously struggled to find a suitable opening pair. This inconsistency at the top of the order has cost Pakistan countless number of matches. The depressing bit is that even after all these years Pakistani selectors have not quite found a solution to this problem, as the opening combination still remains an unanswered question. Sarfraz’s presence provides an alternative to the captain, especially in the forthcoming World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, as the 15 man squad announced recently consists of only two opening batsmen. If either one of Ahmed Shehzad or Mohammad Hafeez fails with the bat, Misbahul Haq has the option to try his wicket keeper at the top, with the intention of setting an aggressive tone at the start of the inning. Not only is he threatening to replace the openers, he has also successfully managed to end the highly inconsistent ‘Akmal era’ in Pakistan cricket.
5. He could take over as Pakistan captain in the future
Here is a fact you might not know about Sarfraz Ahmed; he captained the Pakistan under-19 team to World Cup glory in 2006. This goes on to show that he possesses leadership qualities which could help him secure national team captaincy in the future, if all goes to plan (if he remains consistent in his batting efforts). Also, there seem to be no future leaders in the current Pakistani team, Ahmed Shehzad being the only other candidate for the spot. However, Shehzad, still 23 years of age, seems to lack the required maturity for the job and needs to further develop his batting technique, especially against spin bowling.
6. He celebrates like a champion
When Sarfraz was batting on 90 odd runs in the Dubai Test against Australia, Dean Jones passed a remark that he really wants Sarfraz to get his century, just to watch him celebrate. It was indeed an amazing sight to watch Sarfraz celebrate with great passion three times in this calendar year. As soon as he reaches the coveted milestone, he bursts out running with his bat in the air, followed by a loud sigh of relief. His exhibition of energy in his celebration is heart-warming for cricket fans all over the globe, as he displays just exactly how grateful and overwhelmed he is to score that all important ton for his country.
Even though Sarfraz has achieved great success in the year that has passed, harder tasks are ahead of him as the 2015 cricket World Cup starts next month in Australia and New Zealand. Sarfraz is yet to show his batting prowess outside Asia and this tournament presents a gigantic opportunity for the talented wicket-keeper batsman to make his presence known the world over. I wish him all the best and expect wonders from this talent, who has without a doubt been Pakistan cricket’s greatest positive in 2014.
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