Clad in a white salwar kurta — awami suit as it’s called in Pakistan, dark jacket, and a white topi on his head, Inzamam-ul-Haq stood at the indoor nets at Old Trafford. By his side stood Pakistan’s captain Sarfraz Ahmed and the bowling coach Azhar Mahmood. An animated Inzamam held court for 15 minutes at least, Sarfraz stood hands across his chest and so did Inzybhai’s former team-mate Mahmood, who kept shuffling sideways. It was as intense as one has ever seen Inzamam on the field. Outside the arena, the sun was sucking out the dampness from the roads and parks and infusing hope in the fans about the possibility of cricket on Sunday.
Sarfraz is a fascinating character. Perhaps, the Pakistan captain with the least regal aura about him. A common-man turned king. He talks fast, really rapid as Michael Slater gasped during a PSL tournament. He lisps in Urdu, but it seems less when he converses in English. He not only speaks rapidly but talks a lot on the field. Shouts occasionally.
When Hasan Ali was strangely subdued on the field in the Champions Trophy game against India, Sarfraz yelled, “Calm, sab chodd dey, bhaag”. (Forget being calm, run!) When Rumman Raees didn’t listen to Sarfraz’s suggestion to mix up his deliveries, he shouted out, “C’mon Rumi! Hadh kar di yaar tune, four balls same place? What are you bowling?” In the Thursday game, at Taunton, he was again all over his team, admonishing Wahab Riaz for spraying a rare delivery, speaking a lot to Shaheen Afridi, and saying no many times to Babar Azam, standing next to him at slips and presumably sharing ideas. “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,” Imaad Wasim had said once about Sarfraz’s yelling.
But life hasn’t been as great as it was in the immediate aftermath of Champions Trophy triumph. Back then, he was the people’s hero. People thronged his house and continued to pour in for weeks. “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,” Salim Khaliq, a sports editor who lives across the street from Sarfraz, had told this newspaper.
His father, a religious man, owned a stationery shop and had two tutors come to teach Quran to his son – Sarfraz was a hafiz by the age of 10, one who has memorised Quran and could quote at will. He has a pleasant singing voice for Naats (poetry in ode of the Prophet) and videos swirl around of him singing naats in mehfils and even in cricket dressing rooms. He also sings Hindi movie songs, with his team-mates in car drives.
These days, it seems, that love is fading a bit. Pakistan haven’t done as well in the recent times – and in fact, all the three men huddled by the nets are facing some criticism back home. Inzamam copping it as selector, Mahmood for the bowling troubles that occasionally pipe up, and Sarfraz for the results.
For some reason, Sarfraz isn’t considered a great tactical captain. At least not yet. Even in the past, during times of success, the raves were couched as street-smartness. Outsiders like some of us need more empirical evidence before one can agree or disagree with that perception about strategy. Street-smartness is there for sure, no doubt. Before the semis against much-fancied England in the champions trophy, 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).” And that’s how it played out.
Nothing washes out the perceived faults in an Indian or Pakistani cricketer like a win against the other team. Sarfraz can reclaim the love.
In some ways, Virat Kohli is more Pakistani than Sarfraz — as far as the cricketing world of perceptions goes, that is. The aggressiveness, the self-confidence, the swagger, the talent — we have seen in a few Pakistan captains in the past. Like how the Pakistani cricketers would use “voh toh Pakistani jaisa khelta hai” about Manoj Prabhakar.
There was a picture that went viral the other day — a fan with Kohli’s jersey, riding his bike in Lahore. Sarfraz hasn’t spilled over to the Indian streets, yet. Unlike Sarfraz, Kohli has no worries about losing fans. His batting alone garners him their admiration. His aggressive style on the field too has huge legion of admirers, and a few critics.
In some respects, both have a similar perception hurdle to climb. Despite winning a historic Test series in Australia (without MS Dhoni), Kohli is yet to be seen as a tactical guru. Even his coach Ravi Shastri has said that his strategical skills can only improve. He has been a lot calmer on the field in this World Cup and it has even resulted in (or is it because of?) statesmanlike overtures off it. In the matured way he handled Kagiso Rabada’s critical comments or how he reached out humanely to Steve Smith.
Both possess a good bowling attack; India’s is better, more variety in pace and spin. But Pakistan have two very good left-handed seamers in Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz — historically, Indians haven’t had a great time against (talented and in-form) left-hand pacemen. And Shaheen Afridi too is there, another lefty. Rohit Sharma would especially be tested. He is having problems with his leg-side play — he cut out the flicks against South Africa and when he tried one against Australia, the square-leg fielder dropped the catch. If he falls early, and in the absence of Shikhar Dhawan, India’s middle order could come in for their first real test. If India have Kohli, Pakistan have the classy young talent Babar Azam. Fakhar Zaman is yet to fire — the aggressive openers usually do well against India.
Many Indian fans and self-doubting Pakistani fans (in UK at least) reckon India would prevail. One Pakistani fan summarised the situation thus: “If there is no cloud cover, if the conditions aren’t really bowler friendly, then India would score so much that our batsmen can’t chase. And if India bowl first, they have a better attack even for flat tracks, especially against our batsman.” The sun is out as of Friday evening; the good thing is we don’t have to wait too long to find out what happens. Just one day more. Bragging rights are waiting to be seized.