“We know Sarfaraz can deliver at any position in the batting order.” © Getty
The dip in Sarfaraz Ahmed’s batting form may make his critics question his place in Pakistan XI, but it doesn’t worry Mickey Arthur. In fact, what makes him a vital cog in the Pakistan line-up are his “mind-blowing” numbers in his foremost job – wicketkeeping.
Sarfaraz’s batting average has seen a drastic decline since the last ICC Champions Trophy. Since the tournament in June 2017, Sarfaraz is scoring 21.28 runs per dismissal in ODIs which is 15 runs less than what he had been scoring till Pakistan lifted the coveted trophy. But, Sarfaraz, according to the Pakistan head coach, still pretty much remains a match-winning batsman.
“It needs to be understood that Sarfaraz first and foremost is the captain and a wicketkeeper,” Arthur said after returning to Lahore from the South African tour. “People forget wicketkeeping is a specialist position. Sarfaraz’s numbers over the last four and a half months are mind-blowing: one catch dropped and one missed stumping. I can tell you I did the research on the plane coming last night because I knew this question would be asked, he’s dropped eight balls in four and a half months. So he is not out of form in his core job. His core job is to keep wickets and to take the catches and make the stumpings.
“Sarfaraz will be the first one to admit that his batting form has come and gone. He is very, very determined to get that right because he plays match winning innings. When Sarfaraz plays well, he wins games for us. I want to reiterate I am not worried about his [batting] form.”
What has furthered criticism on Sarfaraz and the Pakistan team management is the former’s batting position. Considering his ability to rotate strike and alter lengths according to his wishes with his quick footwork, it is not surprising that Sarfaraz averages above 44 when he bats in top five. Both of his ODI tons and five of his nine fifties have come while batting there. But since the Asia Cup last year, he has demoted himself.
“It’s very simple, we need to be very fluid with our game plans,” Arthur replied when he was asked to explain the thought process behind the move. “Sarfaraz has done exceptional work for us up and down the order. We have got to realize that over a long tour form comes and goes and players start playing well and then they slip off the radar a little bit. We need to then be able to send our in-form players at any given minute. We’re trying to be as flexible as we can and give opportunities to players in pressure situations to understand their abilities [ahead of the World Cup].
“The last thing we want in a crunch game is sending a guy that we don’t know anything about. It will be gross mismanagement on our part if we hadn’t given that guy an opportunity to perform in that area under pressure. You cannot recreate that pressure which is there in a match – when there are 20,000 people in the stadium and a there’s a massive TV audience – in training. We have to find about those guys and that’s kind of what we did. We know Sarfaraz can deliver at any position in the batting order. We needed to find out little more about the other players.”
Pakistan now take a break from international cricket until the end of March for the fourth edition of the Pakistan Super League (PSL). Since its inception, the league has brought several youngsters – in Fakhar Zaman, Hasan Ali, and Shadab Khan – to the limelight who have gone on to become part of the team’s core group. Arthur and the Pakistan selection committee will make the use of the Australia ODIs, which follow the tournament, to select the final 15 for the World Cup.
“The PSL always throws up one or two good individual performers. So Inzi [Inzamam ul Haq, chairman of the national selection committee] and I have an exact opinion that during the Australia series we are going to have a look at some of our borderline players [including any players that might come up during the PSL]. The key is players get clarity in terms of their roles and role clarity is particularly important.
“The other thing that’s important for us is having an option with two game plans, because the weather in England at any given time is very unpredictable. We need an option where we have our spinners, who are able to suffocate through the middle, because the key to win one-day games is taking wickets through that period. Either we do that with two spinners and a little bit of reverse swing if the weather stays dry. If the weather is wet, we have to have an option of a seam bowling all-rounder who can come in and bat at 7 for us. So we’re very close. We’ve covered all our bases in terms of our personnel at the moment.”
Pakistan were beaten in all three formats during their recently-concluded tour of South Africa. After being outclassed in Tests, they managed to level the five-match series before heading into the final. They had a shot at winning their second bilateral series in a row in South Africa during the third ODI before the rain curtailed the match and the hosts were declared winners by being ahead of the DLS score.
The first two T20Is – which South Africa won – were decided on the penultimate balls before Pakistan secured a comfortable win in the last. But, the fact that South Africa beat Pakistan without its mainstays like Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada, and Faf du Plessis (in the last two) took sheen off the top-ranked side’s efforts. Arthur, however, looking at the positives from the tour – in terms of the development of youngsters and the team’s overall work ethic – said he was “incredibly proud”.
“I was really disappointed that we couldn’t get over the line and win the one-day series. We thought we were as good as South Africa in those conditions. Despite South Africa being the toughest place to bat, to get the man of the series in ODIs [which Imam ul Haq did] and to see Babar Azam’s development across all formats was simply amazing.
“Although we didn’t get the results, I sit here incredibly proud about our stint in South Africa. Talking to the South African press, talking to South African public, they were immensely impressed with our standard of cricket. It is the testimony to, A, the work grade of these boys, B, the skillsets, and C, the determination to keep giving better and better.”