Moin Khan’s phone buzzed during the 2015 World Cup. When the former Pakistan captain checked, he realised it was Sarfraz Ahmed from Australia. Sarfraz sounded troubled. “Bhai, Waqar Younis is asking me to open the batting tomorrow against South Africa. You know I’m not used to batting there. If I fail, I will be out of the Pakistan team forever. That’s what they want. Main kya karoon?” (What should I do?) Facing problems with the coach then, Sarfraz wasn’t picked in any World Cup game until South Africa. Moin, who was Sarfraz’s idol, and reason why he turned from a seamer to a wicketkeeper when young, remembers telling him, “Tu yeh soch (Think of it this way), what if you are a success tomorrow? Your whole life would change. Think positive. Forget Waqar and other stuff. Just think about your success tonight.”
As it turned out, Sarfraz hit a brilliant life-changing cameo of 49, and followed it up with hundred against Ireland, and two years later his career has leapfrogged to stardom. When he returned home after the Champions Trophy to Buffer Zone, sandwiched between Karachi and North Nazimabad, his house was engulfed by fans — some hanging off parapets of neighbours’ walls and balconies heaving with adrenalin and joy, the window-grills used as hanging points, as everyone jostled for a glimpse of the people’s star. When he waved his arms, people turned delirious.
The videos of celebration have gone viral. In some, the entire neighbourhood is screaming out “Mauka Mauka”, the promo used by an Indian television channel last year ahead of the T20 Worlds that was deemed as a condescending taunt by Pakistan and Bangladesh cricket fans. Egged on, Sarfraz eventually repeated “mauka mauka” and the whole place went berserk. In another, he sings “Pakistan, Pakistan” — and the Mohalla turns intoxicatingly frenzied.
“After Shahid Afridi, I’m seeing this public adulation — a special crazy sort of love — for the first time. There’ve been other big players like Misbah and Younis who have people’s respect, but only Afridi commanded such love. Now it’s Sarfraz. He is the biggest cricketing star right now,” says Salim Khaliq, sports editor with Express, an Urdu newspaper in Pakistan. Khaliq lives across the street from Sarfraz, opposite what used to be a cricket ground and is now a park. In a chat nearly ten days after Champions Trophy, Khaliq says, “I can still see people thronging his house. It’s a rush. It’s an open house now – people come, ring the bell and Sarfraz meets them for a selfie or autograph. You would have heard about the special child who came to visit him at 4 am in the night?”
It made for a poignant moment. The boy is sitting on a wheelchair, and around him are his family. Someone says, “Aayega aayega,” and soon, Sarfraz emerges with a Pakistan cricket jersey and presents it to the boy, and poses for a picture.
“Abhi bhi humble hai Sarfraz. Dimaag kharaab nahi hua! (He remains humble, and success hasn’t gone to his head)” Khaliq says. He should know. In the past, he has written columns, occasionally criticising Sarfraz, and in the gully, he would be accosted by the player. ‘Kya bhai, apne mohalle mein rehte ho, aur hamaari criticism karte rehte ho!’ (You stay in this neighbourhood and still criticise me?)
“But he would say it with a smile. He has never sulked or stopped talking with me.”
It’s a recurring theme: Grounded, humble, street-smart, and confident. But still the self-doubts would creep up. Like the evening after the first game against India in the tournament. It was a bruising loss, and this time around he called his mentor Nadeem Omar, the owner of the PSL team Quetta Gladiators, and a patron-saint of Pakistan cricket in many ways, who has funded many budding cricketers in his three clubs.
Omar remembers a slightly diffident Sarfraz on the phone line that night from Birmingham. “I told him, I couldn’t see the same confident captain I see in PSL. It seems you are inhibited, and not taking the calls. Tell the team, seniors or whoever, that on field you are in charge, and you are not going to take any slacking.” Sarfraz, Omar recalls, agreed and promised a return to his natural style of leadership in the next games. “I’d told him, if you don’t do well, it might not be just the last time you are captaining but even playing for Pakistan. Play it your way; else you will regret later.”
Rumaan Raees, the left-arm pacer, would attest to that change speaking on a recent Eid special show for Geo TV. Just before he was about to bowl to England’s Johnny Bairstow, Sarfraz rushed to him to say: “Don’t bowl four balls on same length to him. He plays with hard hands. Use your variation, the slower ball,” he would recall in the TV special hosted by Wasim Akram. Raees pinged four on the same spot in succession and Sarfraz lost it. “C’mon Rumi, Hadh kar di yaar tune, four balls same place? I have mid-on, mid-off up, so use the slower ball. What are you bowling?”
In the final game against India, Sarfraz found Hasan Ali slacking on the field. When questioned, he got the reply: “Saifu bhai, I am trying to remain calm for this game!” Sarfraz recalls the incident on the show. “Calm sab chhod de (forget staying calm), just run in fast like the whole tournament. Bhaag!” Imad Wasim, a frequent recipient of Sarfraz’s outbursts on the field, places it all in context on the show. “I know him for long. Jiska niyat theek hai na (whose integrity and intent is good), you don’t mind them shouting. It’s for our good, for the team.”
Sarfraz has gone about setting as relaxed an atmosphere as is possible. There were no big team meetings before the game against South Africa for instance; he just picked out individuals aside and spoke to them one-on-one. Before the semis against much-fancied England, he told his bowlers, “yeh darpok team hai, when wickets fall, balla nahi uthega (this is a cowardly team, they won’t raise their bats).
It’s a young team and Sarfraz’s hands-on style akin to a friendly elder brother allows characters to develop and express themselves. Like Fakhar Zaman. In the game against England, he was trying to hook everything at Cardiff which has long, square-boundaries and short straighter ones. Back in the dressing room, Sarfraz was tearing his hair apart. “Arre kya kar raha hai yeh! (What’s he trying to do?) Mat maar, don’t hit” When Fakhar returned to the dressing room after a breezy 57, he explained his rationale: “Bhai, I was trying to arrange for the top-edge! If it connects it would be a six over midwicket, else top-edge six over short boundary!” The team was in splits. How could one plan for a top-edge?!
He’s surrounded by well-wishers and Omar had recruited the Caribbean legend Viv Richards as a mentor of the PSL team. He was stunned to see how well Richards gelled with the team. Often, Richards would get emotional, even crying at losses, and talking up all his players. Omar had requested Richards to mentor the young captain, and Richards would spend hours in a corner with Sarfraz, talking to him about this and that. “He would tell Sarfraz, ‘Just believe, stay grounded. On field, be a Richards!’ They got along so well, they had become a family.”
Sarfraz has been destiny’s child in a way. His family wasn’t initially supportive of his cricket. His father, “a man of Allah” owned a stationery shop, and it was a middle-class life. By the age of 10, Sarfraz had memorised Quran – he was a hafiz. Two tutors would come to his home every day in the early years to teach him, forming his world view and teaching him the importance of staying humble and grounded.
Sarfraz also came in contact with benevolent mentors. Not far from his neighbourhood, lived Azam Khan, coach at Pakistan Cricket Club which has produced several cricketers. “I first saw him when he was around 11 or 12. He was talented. Since his father didn’t like cricket much, he would come secretly to play at my club. Slowly the father warmed up to his cricket, but his father passed away when he was in U-19s.” Azam decided to immerse the kid into cricket to forget the pain and took a young Sarfraz to meet his idol Moin Khan at the PIA team.
It’s to Azam that Sarfraz confided what he really thought about captaincy. When Sarfraz was dropped after making his debut against India in Jaipur, Azam first told him, “I believe you are going to be captain one day.” And Sarfraz laughed. Later, when he was again dropped from the team, Azam said the same, and Sarfraz went, “Bhai, every time I get fired from the team, you keep saying I am going to be the captain! How is that ever going to be possible?”
When he eventually became the T20 captain, Sarfraz landed up at Azam’s house with a box of sweets and said, “I can’t believe it.” When Azam went to the airport to meet Sarfraz after the Champions Trophy, he cried seeing the mass of people gathered to see his ‘bacha.’
“And he spotted me and rushed to me. Last night I reminded him about how I used to tell him that he would become the captain one day. And we both had a laugh. He was always a fighter as a kid, never liked losing whichever team he played – club, grade 2, leagues or for Pakistan. Whenever he has been fired from the team, he’s never given any excuses about cricket-politics or whatever. He would always work doubly-hard. Never said a bad word about anyone.”
An opportunity had popped up in that television show. Aamir Sohail had publicly criticised Sarfraz recently, talking down on him as if he were a schoolboy. In a segment where you react instantly to a word, the show host threw the name ‘Sohail’. Sarfraz looked up with a gentle smile, and said, “Bahut acche insaan hai voh!”
In a banquet after a Ramzaan cup and in the subsequent ones thrown at Omar’s house, Sarfraz would get up on stage and sing Naats — poetry as ode to the Prophet. He has a beautiful voice and loves to sing Naats in the dressing rooms. There is a video that Omar shares, from last August 14th Independence Day function at his house, where Sarfraz first croons out the song ‘mera paigham Pakistan’ penned by the poet Jamiluddin Ali and made famous by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Clad in a Kurta, sitting under a shamiana, Sarfraz’s voice fills the air.
He then picks up a listener’s request from the Rajendra Kumar-Vyjanthimala starrer-Suraj, and sings, “Baharon phool barsao, mera mehboob aaya hai” . In many ways, those lines perfectly capture an enthralled Pakistan; in love with the new people’s star.