October, 2019. Sarfaraz Ahmed had just captained Pakistan for the final time. They comfortably won the ODI series 2-0 against a visiting Sri Lankan team, but were whitewashed 3-0 in the T20Is. The appointment of Babar Azam as the captain was imminent and so was Mohammad Rizwan’s take over of the first-choice wicketkeeper role. Over the next three years, Sarfaraz would play just three T20Is and a single ODI. In Tests, he would be further down the pecking order, playing none after January, 2019. Even the most ardent among Pakistan’s cricket-loving fans believed it was all over for Sarfaraz.
But he would be there, series after series, part of the squad but never in the plans. He would be seen before every match, standing with his head held high, hand on his heart, singing the national anthem and would then pull over the substitute's bib over his shoulders to carry drinks for his teammates. He was shaking hands with Jason Holder, Steve Smith and Joe Root – all who have been succeeded by someone else, but didn’t go through what Sarfaraz had to.
Had this been any other high-profile player in Pakistan, there would be merit flexing in the media and constant back and forth with the team management. But Sarfaraz was cut out from a different cloth. He kept enduring and waited for his chance.
As he completed the second run off Matt Henry to reach his hundred on the final day of the second Test against New Zealand, something shook inside Sarfaraz. He jumped in elation, punched ground in rage and raised his bat to the section of the stands where his wife Syeda Khushbakht was wiping happy tears. It was a moment of vindication after four years of pain caused by the constant mockery he and his family received.
There were a lot of things Sarfaraz had to prove. More often than not, it was his keeping that came under fire. He would put down catches at crucial moments and would misjudge DRS calls. Then there was the constant wave of ridicule and criticism of his fitness. The biggest question, however, was how would his batting ever get better. In 2019, his form hit a new low when he scored just two fifties from 17 ODIs which was also compounded by Pakistan's failure to qualify for the World Cup semifinals that year.
His reinstatement in the playing XI for the New Zealand Tests also came at a time when Pakistan needed a change in approach. It needed disruption of the narrative surrounding the team. Home series losses to Australia and England brought down the PCB’s hierarchy led by Ramiz Raja crashing down and the interim selection committee led by Shahid Afridi had to do something. Their lower order collapses and lack of any bite in the middle order needed a fix. Mohammad Rizwan, despite a being reliable glove man, was losing the plot as a batter.
That’s were Sarfaraz’s tireless form in the first-class cricket got him the nod. Since his last Test against South Africa in early 2019, Sarfaraz has raked up 1046 runs from 27 innings at an average of 45.48 for Sindh in the Qaid-e-Azam Trophy. During this time, he has batted all across the order with majority of his runs coming at No.6 and 7.
For the world outside, Sarfaraz’s career was on borrowed time. Playing him against New Zealand might’ve felt risky, but Pakistan could’ve done worse by being pragmatic. As a batter, Sarfaraz is anything but pragmatic. All throughout his career, he had batted at a strike rate excess of 60 and it was something Pakistan needed in their lower-middle order.
In the two Tests against the Kiwis, Sarfaraz’s three fifties and the hundred came at a strike rate of 65.2 which kept the scoreboard ticking when things got supremely slow. It was the positivity Pakistan lacked badly last year where they haven’t won a single Test at home. It was all on display on the final day of the second Test. Despite coming in at 80/5 while chasing 319, Sarfaraz remained kept picking gaps in New Zealand’s field and constantly hurried Saud Shakeel to run tough singles and twos.
When things settled down, he went for the big shots, told off Shakeel, refusing singles and single-handedly brought the hosts to the brink of a thrilling win. It was also the first time in ten days, the stands in Karachi’s National Stadium were more than half full. The decibel levels were only going up.
In a long while, Pakistan’s second innings was not a total disaster. Starting with their loss to Australia in Lahore, Pakistan’s last five wickets fell for --- 22, 9, 38 and 39 runs. In Karachi, their last five wickets produced 126 runs in the first Test when Sarfaraz scored 53 and 227 runs in the second Test off which Sarfaraz’s share was 118. It dragged them back from the brink of a humiliating loss to a possible thumping win.
This was the old Sarfaraz with his greatest strengths and some of his flaws still lingering. He was guilty of advising Babar for three wrong DRS calls and missed the key stumping of Michael Bracewell in the second innings. However, it was once again time for Pakistan and their fans to take Saifi bhai seriously.