ICC World Cup 2015: Pakistan’s competitive underdog
Ever since the departure of Moin Khan in 2004, Pakistan’s search for a competitive wicket-keeper batsman has been a painstaking one. In a growing generation of brute McCullums and stylish Quinton De Kocks, the nation’s long-desired weapon with the bat, as well as behind the wicket, was thought to be nothing more than a mirage. Barring the short-lived legacy of Kamran Akmal, Pakistan’s list of experimentations have ranged from a timid Zulqarnain Haider, to a ridiculously incompatible Umar Akmal with the gloves, deeming the effort downright fruitless. One man however seems to have filled this aching void to brilliant effect. His performance speaks enough to furbish the rust of individual complacency, evoke positivity out of global critics, and serve the playing eleven beyond just the role of an impressionist; we call him Sarfraz Ahmed.
Although his 2007 ODI debut in a pressure-packed game against India in Jaipur went starkly unnoticed, Sarfraz’s impressive transition from his starting years of obscurity into 2014’s finest stroke-makers for Pakistan has stemmed entirely from gross underestimation. A less ballistic and more cautious approach to maturing his game has provided him ample time to solidify the basics for sound batsmanship and invigorate his otherwise bland technique with added focus, all to engineer the perfect recipe for registering an applause-worthy knock. Ever since the start of 2014, a challenging year for Pakistan as a side with inadequate experience due to an excess of youngsters, two match-saving test scores of fifty-plus against a competitive Sri Lankan bowling line-up on the bouncy tracks of UAE proved game-changing for the team and the country’s audience, who were at last relieved to witness a sheer demonstration of class from the last man standing. Character continued to overtake numbers for Sarfraz as Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Australia ― sides with exceptional bowling artillery ― were clubbed for a test hundred each, making it three in four months for a wicketkeeper batting at seven, averaging well over 43 in the format. Even for batsmen of the highest quality, a Johnson, Siddle and Starc trio is one ferocious force to diffuse and strategize against, unless we’re in for some calculated Sarfraz heroism, that is.
Given Pakistan’s history of a crumbling top-order, coupled with an unpredictable lower-middle belly, such single handed dominance, and that too from a green-capped wicket keeper away from public limelight, is somewhat unprecedented. Hence, Sarfraz’s excellent hand-eye coordination, flawless timing off both the front and backfoot, lovely athleticism behind the wicket on an array of pitches home and abroad, and a substantial variety of strokes spell out solid temperament for a Pakistani wicketkeeper batsman; a quality much of the rest have seemingly lost out on. Securing an even distribution of such temperament and stamina among the shorter formats of the game, Sarfraz’s unbeaten bash of 76 against the Kiwis up the order in October’s first of two T20s ended up dragging Pakistan’s chances from the verge of losing the series to a respectable draw, not to mention the eight fours and two gigantic sixes that set the Dubai crowd abuzz. Where were the rest of the certified, experienced hitters when such a lead in the series was to be established, to ultimately reduce chances of a shameful loss? Perhaps all of them were around.. albeit, not for long.
With the ICC World Cup 2015 just shy of a month away from now, the dominant narrative pertaining to Pakistan’s batting triumphs and its chances of overall victory is an unfavorable one, given the types of pitches Australia and New Zealand are comprised of. However, Sarfraz remains one of the few which stand contrary to popular view of Pakistan’s success possibilities on an alien turf, having shown the world how less fancy and more calculated 20s, 30s and 40s with the bat during moments of urgency can be the difference between winning and the losing side, underscoring the criticality of both technique and firepower in equal measure. A highly commendable success rate behind the bails and his acute potential of ‘on-the-up’ play is an undisputed rarity in the announced 15-man squad; a testament of how his inclusion went through without opposition, having rendered his talent indispensable to the unit.
Paired with Younis Khan, Shahid Afridi and Ahmed Shehzad’s sweetly revived form, Sarfraz’s imperative lower-middle order occupation poses a serious threat to fellow visitors and hosts. The 27 year old means business this year, and Pakistan is ready to turn the odds in its favor.