Intense work ethic fuels Sarfraz Ahmed’s rise to the top

Sarfraz Ahmed's rise to the top

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has moved in swiftly to make the first major appointment in the post-2016 World Twenty20 scenario.

The nameplate of national T20 skipper was in urgent need to be replaced by a new one after Pakistan’s abortive missions to Bangladesh (Asia Cup) and India (World T20) where they collectively had just three victories in eight outings.

‘King of Failures’, Shahid Afridi, has had his days in the sun and abdicated the throne. Sarfraz Ahmed has been entrusted the superhuman task of reviving Pakistan’s flailing track record in the shortest form of cricket.

Since April 2015, Pakistan have lost 11 of the 21 matches until now. And out of their 10 wins, half of them were against lowly-ranked Zimbabwe (four) and the United Arab Emirates. The once top-ranked side is currently languishing at a disappointing seventh spot in the ICC T20 team rankings.

The men ‘responsible’ of all these failings have paid a heavy price. Haroon Rasheed and his fellow selectors have been relieved of their jobs and will be replaced by a new national selection committee soon.

Waqar Younis has also thrown in the towel three months ahead of his PCB contract, which was due to expire in June. Like his first tenure as head coach, this was another stressful experience for the former Pakistan captain.

But unlike his initial adventure, Waqar chose to part ways with a contemptuous but honest narration of Pakistan’s shambolic performance at the two most-recent T20 tournaments and minced no words in holding Afridi chiefly responsible for the diabolical results and the way the embattled all-rounder conducted himself as a leader.

Outrageous as it may sound, Afridi has no desire to end his international career just yet. Without directly confronting the media, he had attempted to gain sympathy of his fellow countrymen by offering an unconvincing apology via a video on the social media. Probably sensing the noise had died down, four days later, he was at it again. He ‘resigned’ as captain but still expressed a desire to continue as a player.

These are critical times for Pakistan cricket and tough decisions on part of the PCB hierarchy have become mandatory to revive a disjointed national team. The induction of Sarfraz has been widely acclaimed because he was the most obvious candidate to fill the breach.

Knowing him from the time he led Pakistan Under-19s to World Cup glory in early 2006, one can say without being biased that Sarfraz, indeed, deserves this promotion. It is an overdue reward for the pains and hard work this never-say-die cricketer has gone through to become the ‘most valuable player’ of all three current Pakistan teams.

It has been a gradual rise for him. Behind the scene, a number of dedicated individuals have been a great source of inspiration for someone who was destined to lead the country. During my long career in sports journalism, I have seldom seen anyone work as hard as Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq and Sarfraz. Their work ethic as sportsmen is astounding.

Even in the twilight of their careers, none can match the fitness levels or dedication of either Misbah or Younis, and Sarfraz has been following the two stalwarts with almost the same zeal and energy. When not playing top-level cricket, Sarfraz can be easily spotted at one of the grounds in Karachi, grinding away conscientiously to improve both his fitness and game.

And whenever time permits, he is always available to fulfill his commitments with the Pakistan Cricket Club, the famed KCCA Zone-VI side which is arguably the most formidable club team in the country. This club has a proud history of nurturing a number of Pakistan cricketers. Current Test batsman Asad Shafiq also regularly turns out for the club as do Shan Masood, Anwar Ali, Rumman Raees Khan, Rameez Raja Jr.

Well-known cricket promoter Nadeem Omar – the Pakistan Cricket Club president who also heads two other clubs and became globally prominent as the proud owner of Pakistan Super League (PSL) franchise Quetta Gladiators – has had played a huge role in the progress of Sarfraz.

Known in the cricketing circles as a graciously humble gentleman, Nadeem had predicted a long time ago that Sarfraz would be playing for the country when he saw the young kid smashing a straight six. Such is his nature that Nadeem, a businessman by profession, credits his club founder Azam Khan and former first-class cricketer Zafar Ahmed as the two men who had been instrumental in the upbringing of Sarfraz the cricketer.

Nadeem, a long time back, had earmarked Sarfraz as a leader when the wicket-keeper/batsman was just a teenager and always mentioned him as someone with God-gifted qualities of a cricket captain.

And though Islamabad United won the inaugural edition of the PSL in February, the Gladiators were the most popular team with Sarfraz leading them to the final under the guidance of ex-Pakistan captain and head coach Moin Khan and the legendary West Indies batsman Sir Vivian Richards, who was hired by Nadeem as the team mentor.

The presence of Richards and the signings Kumar Sangakkara and Kevin Pietersen in the Gladiators’ ranks was a blessing in disguise for Sarfraz and the rest of the squad and it showed both on and off the field. Their camaraderie served as an example which was not the case with the other PSL franchises. For Nadeem, Moin and Azam, the Gladiators bandwagon was like one big family and they ensured all members enjoyed each other’s company.

Sarfraz, in a media interview in February, lauded the tremendous impact Richards had on the team. “He was a great influence in our dressing room and helped us in more ways than we could have imagined. His supportive attitude and great advice really helped us calm our nerves in tricky situations.”

Now that he will be leading Pakistan, Sarfraz faces a challenging future both on the leadership front and as a player. There will be days when the going will get tough. That is where his captaincy skills would be fully tested. One thing is assured: he won’t be aloof given his nature. He mingles extremely well with people of all ages.

But history also points to pitfalls of Pakistan captaincy. Many skippers have come and gone and some were deemed unacceptable by certain groups in the squad who had vested interests. The inter-provincial jealously, sadly, still exists in our cricketing setup. This is one key element of disharmony when it comes to represent the country.

Javed Miandad had a turbulent career in the hot seat when he was asked to take over at the tender age of 22 following the disastrous tour of India in 1979-80 by Asif Iqbal-led side.

Tragically, Miandad was never wholeheartedly accepted as the national team leader by those seniors who themselves were aspiring for the job even if they did not have the acumen of captaincy or not.

The current ICC president Zaheer Abbas, one of the finest batsmen ever produced by Pakistan, was one such character who definitely lacked the skills to lead the national side. But a burning desire and connections in the appropriate places saw him captain Pakistan with an ultra-defensive mindset for a while in the 1980s.

In contrast to Zaheer’s shortcomings, Younis Khan had the leadership qualities and should have had a longer tenure after the experiment with Shoaib Malik didn’t work. And despite skippering Pakistan to their only World T20 title in 2009, Younis – who agreed to accept the job after lot of cajoling from various sources – was forced out of the position in mysterious circumstances just a few months later. No wonder, the dissenting lot, instead, chose to stab Younis in the back because they felt uncomfortable having him as their captain.

Shoaib Malik made a startling revelation during a media interaction during the 2016 World T20. The former skipper observed: “Six of the players in the team weren’t on talking terms with each other when Pakistan won the World Twenty20 in 2009 in England. But nobody talked about it then because we won the event.”

Imran Khan was total exception to the rule. He was a strong-headed leader who even had the audacity of picking his own team while distrusting the selections made by the appointed committee. He didn’t earn the respect but such was his personality that he rather commanded it from his players. Once in the 1980s he had the boldness to order a cricket board secretary to leave the Pakistan dressing room during a match in Karachi. But given his widely-acclaimed virtue as a stern skipper, even Imran had to face resentment within the ranks.

However, the on field Imran, who became the captain by default in 1982 after the infamous revolt against Miandad, got what he wanted: Performance from his players. If this hadn’t been the case then Pakistan would have never won the 1992 World Cup when they had almost lost the plot after early pool results didn’t go their way.

Men like Imran, Mushtaq Mohammad and Abdul Hafeez Kardar were exceptional leaders of the eras long gone by. They hailed from different backgrounds and yet, they succeeded in stamping Pakistan’s name on the global cricketing horizon with great distinction.

With the passage of time, mechanisms in our day-to-day lives have progressed at a rapid pace and cricket too, like other sports, has experienced revolutionary vicissitudes worldwide. Nowadays, apart from a squad of players, there is another varied pool of people who we all recognize as the support staff or team management. Both groups work in tandem for one goal – the team’s success on the playing field.

But the captain attracts the spotlight most than others in modern-day cricket. No longer can he afford the luxury of enjoying his privacy. Every move of his, cricket-related or otherwise, is monitored particularly in this part of the world. The players hold the centre stage and are often in the news, sometimes more than the politicians and other famous personalities.

In the aftermath of the spot-fixing saga, Misbah had emerged as Pakistan’s most successful Test captain. A very commendable feat for a really fine cricketer given that his country had been playing away from home since the terror attacks on the Sri Lankan team in March 2009.

There is a degree of contrasts in the way Pakistan teams have been led over the years by many captains. There have been situations when as many as five or six members of the same playing XI had a taste of international captaincy in the past. This is nothing new in the peculiar Pakistan setup given the frequency of changes effected by the sitting board chairman.

The incoming T20 skipper must not only guard against complacency in his own performance but also address to the needs of the players he would be leading. An otherwise shy character, Sarfraz speaks with intelligence and commonsense and has the uncanny talent of soaking up the rigours and pressures which are parts and parcels of international cricket.

At the same time, he should – and must – stamp his authority in no uncertain terms to let everyone understand that he is the captain of Pakistan. He mustn’t succumb to outside distractions and be his own man rather than being asked to take dictations from the concerned authorities. Whoever are the selectors or who comes in as the next head coach, the captain has got to assert himself.

The image of Pakistan cricket has taken a lot of flak and Sarfraz has to be tactful both in handling his team and relationship with the media, which can be relentless and unforgiving if the team doesn’t perform as everyone expects.

If all goes to plan, Sarfraz will be the country’s seventh T20 captain after Inzamam-ul-Haq – Pakistan’s debut international in the format when he skippered his only game against England in 2006 – Younis (eight matches between 2007 and 2009 and led Pakistan to their solitary World T20 crown before quitting the format), Shoaib Malik (17 games between 2007 and 2010), Misbah (eight between 2009 and 2012), Afridi (43 between 2009 and 2016) and Mohammad Hafeez (29 matches on the trot between 2012 and 2014).

And if Sarfraz does a fair job of the responsibility thrust upon him by PCB chairman Shaharyar Khan to begin with, he could well be in line to take over reins of both one-day and Test teams.

He captained Pakistan to victory while standing in for the injured Azhar Ali during the series-deciding one-dayer against Zimbabwe in 2015.

It was a prelude to what Sarfraz really has to offer to Pakistan.


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