In a decade defined by wicketkeeper-batsmen such as Kumar Sangakkara, MS Dhoni, Brendon McCullum and AB De Villiers, Pakistan’s men behind the stumps have been better known for their involvement in team politics, mid-series disappearance acts and faking injuries. In between, there have been glimpses of unfulfilled promise.
Pakistani fans have braved through much and there was a brief period when dropped catches or missed stumpings became a matter of fact. But with an increasingly assured presence behind the stumps and a steely determination in front, Sarfraz Ahmed seems to have provided some respite and he has not done much wrong since his latest return to the national side.
His story, like that of countless boys before him, began on the streets of Karachi. Playing the game with a handful of resources and personnel ensures that every kid bowls, bats, fields (in unorthodox positions) and also keeps wickets in a street match.
“I had never set my mind on becoming a wicketkeeper but during the early days of my cricket obsession, Moin [Khan] bhai was part of the great Pakistani sides of 1990s and I just wanted to be like him,” Sarfraz tells Dawn.com in an exclusive interview as he gears up for the first Test between Pakistan and Australia which gets underway on Wednesday in Dubai.
Not too passionate about his studies, Sarfraz’s cricket ambition did not receive much encouragement at home until a few newspaper clippings made his parents take notice and realise that the game wasn’t just an excuse for skipping studies. “I had been playing Under-15 and Under-17 level cricket but it wasn’t until I played inter-school and inter-college tournaments that my family understood my passion for the game,” he says.
Pakistan has had a reputation for plucking prodigious talent out of youth teams and putting them on the international stage without caring much for first-class experience or readiness.
For Safraz, however, it was a long journey through the ranks of youth and first-class cricket before he got a chance to represent Pakistan. A run of impressive performances (250 runs and 15 victims behind the stumps in three matches) for Karachi Under-19 led to a Pakistan Under-19 call-up. Following trials for the Under-19 Afro-Asia Cup squad, Sarfraz was handed over captaincy for the tour.
“I was thrilled. Suddenly, I was inundated with messages and suggestions from friends and family.”
What followed would suddenly make the teenager and his teammates household names across Pakistan. It was 2006 and Pakistan were defending their Under-19 World Cup crown in Sri Lanka under Sarfraz’s captaincy. Despite a stuttering run in the group stage, Pakistan remained favourites to retain the title after a big win over Australia in the semi-final.
“I felt immense pressure as I walked out for the toss in the final (against India) and then the way we collapsed for 109, we were all left stunned,” he recalls. “But we knew that it was only their top order that had been scoring and if we could get past them, we would have every chance of defending the total.”
The ensuing mayhem went on to become one of the biggest YouTube hits among Pakistani cricket fans.
“Jamshed [Ahmed] started it with the first ball of their innings and then Anwar Ali took over. He would bowl a no-ball then take a wicket. Within four overs, we had got rid of three of the tournament’s top ten batsmen. It was insane stuff. I couldn’t believe it from behind the stumps.”
This was the first time a side had defended the Under-19 World Cup title successfully and Sarfraz believes that it was down to the understanding between the squad and team management. Coach Mansoor Rana and manager Aftab Baloch had instilled such self-belief in the captain that it is still paying dividends for him.
Back home, the Pakistan Cricket Board accorded a grand welcome to the champions and several players were handed first-class contracts. For Sarfraz, the call came from domestic giants PIA. “It was as if I was living a dream. Playing for PIA was the ultimate goal for any cricketer aspiring to get noticed by national selectors. Plus, it was the team of my idol (Moin Khan). This was when I realised that playing cricket full-time may not have been such a bad idea after all.”
|“His biggest asset is his bravery.” — Photo by AFP|
Despite having an average couple of years with PIA, Sarfraz was called up to the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Lahore. He credits the three years spent at NCA and his habit of playing regular club matches for his development as a senior cricketer.
“These days, young players don’t bother going back to their clubs even when they are not playing first-class matches. For me, club cricket remains the most vital part of my career. This is what I had seen all senior players do. When we talked amongst ourselves, the boys would say: ‘Yaar Moin bhai dou bajay Bakhtiari (Youth Centre) par jatay thay aur sham ko wapis atay thay’ [Moin would go to Bakhtiari for practice at 2pm and return late in the evening]. So if I wanted to be as successful as him, I had to keep going back to my club and show it the same respect that I showed to my first-class teams.”
Sarfraz’s first call for Pakistan trials came prior to the 2007 World T20. He didn’t make the cut but found a place in the Pakistan A side which was then being sent on several international tours. “I was happy being part of the A team as it gave me a chance to learn on the international level and stay on the selectors’ radar.”
When his debut came, owing to an injury to Kamran Akmal, Sarfraz was desperate to make the most of it. He didn’t have a perfect debut but was termed a “pleasant surprise” by the then-captain Shoaib Malik.
Unable to dislodge Kamran permanently, Sarfraz would make his way in and out of the ODI side for series against Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He was also part of Asia Cup squads for 2008 and 2012, when he was the top scorer in Pakistan’s win in the final.
Kamran’s painfully erratic performance in the 2009 Sydney Test led to a hurried Test debut for Sarfraz. “Kami bhai (Kamran Akmal) is a senior player with great services to Pakistan so there was no comparison between us. I always thought that whenever I get selected in the Test side, I would have to make the most of the opportunity but I let the pressure get to me in Hobart and was out of the team again.”
Although Pakistan’s batting woes have led them to repeatedly rely on Kamran’s younger brother Umar in the shorter formats, the arrangement never worked out as well as the team management would have liked. For Sarfraz, batting comes second and it’s the work behind the stumps that takes priority.
“Batting is also important and I have always worked hard on improving it,” he says. An important aspect of Sarfraz’s batting is his ability to pinch singles and keep things moving, an attribute that comes naturally to street cricketers in Karachi.
“Pitches in Karachi are slower and it gets difficult to play big shots, so you have to rely on singles and doubles.”
When he does play big shots, though, they are rather audacious as was highlighted in successful stint as an opener against Australia in the ODI series. The sweep shot against fast bowlers, in particular, is from the Moin Khan manual of unsettling the opposition. “It is a get-out- of-jail shot for me. I play it whenever I want to put the pressure back on the bowler. It is my counter-punch. Yeh beizzati hai fast bowler kay liye (It is a disgrace for a fast bowler to be swept like that)” he says in a matter-of-fact tone.
Moin, who is now PCB’s chief selector and team manager, has backed Sarfraz’s case as Pakistan’s first-choice keeper and insists that his disciple is a better batsman than he was.
“His biggest asset is his bravery in both parts of the game. When behind the stumps, he creates a lively atmosphere and keeps all the players involved.”
Given the recent shuffle in the side due to injuries and bans and uncertainties over the role of ODI captaincy, it may take some time before Pakistan form their squad for the 2015 World Cup. Moin, however, believes that the wicketkeeper’s spot is Sarfraz’s to lose.
“Competition for a place in the squad is always good for the side but given the way Sarfraz has played in the last couple of series, he seems to be our first-choice ‘keeper.”
The 27-year-old is determined to keep himself grounded and dismisses the suggestion.
“Of course I want to be in the squad, it is every cricketer’s dream to play the World Cup but I am focussed on the matches ahead of me. If I start daydreaming about something that is a few months away, I will lose focus.”
The journey from an being an aspiring young cricketer to the country’s first-choice gloveman had one thing in common along the way: extra hours of practice and lots of club cricket. His club coach, Azam Khan, made him play club matches even after returning from national duty.
“If you keep your club among your priorities even after becoming a successful international cricketer, it will benefit you in the long term. Your club is like your home. Every time you go back, you will have someone to guide you and tell you right from wrong.”
Having two younger cricket-playing brothers, one who is also a keeper, Sarfraz would have hoped to have become the same sort of inspirational figure that Moin was to him. However, he is nothing more than a sibling who happens to play Test cricket for Pakistan. “We practice together and have conversations about the game. But Brad Haddin is my brother’s real cricketing hero,” he says, insisting that it isn’t a joke.
Following the interview, Sarfraz is scheduled to meet with bat and glove sponsors. When asked why he doesn’t have an agent, the humble keeper looks surprised and concedes, “I’m not a star yet.”
Hafsa Adil tweets @hafsa_adil