On Tuesday, as Pakistan were training at the ICC Academy in Dubai ahead of their Asia Cup Super Four fixture against Bangladesh, Inzamam-ul-Haq seemingly became the team’s unofficial mentor. The Pakistan chief selector had landed in Dubai the previous evening and was on a confidence-boosting exercise at the nets. Apart from a team discussion, Inzamam also had a long chat with his nephew Imam-ul-Haq.
As it turned out, Imam played the lone ranger against Bangladesh, scoring 83, but got out at the wrong time due to poor shot selection. Pakistan lost the win-or-bust contest and went out of the Asia Cup. They won only two matches in this tournament. They lost to India twice. The Champions Trophy triumph last year felt like a distant memory. An acrimonious press conference followed, with skipper Sarfraz Ahmed at the receiving end of the ire. His defensive captaincy had let Bangladesh off the hook and he finished with 68 runs from five matches. In fact, the captain has contributed very little with the bat since his match-winning half-century against Sri Lanka in the Champions Trophy. “Sarfraz, you might feel bad, but your on-field performance has been poor, both as a captain and with the bat. We lost in New Zealand. We lost to India here. So how do you assess yourself?” a reporter asked. Another went to the length of advising Sarfraz to take a few weeks’ break and come back refreshed. The Pakistan captain didn’t ask a counter-question, although he looked a little irritated.
Sarfraz owned up responsibility. “I didn’t perform well and this is the reason why the team lost. I should have performed better. I accept my failure,” he said.
Cricketers and coaches in India and Pakistan are used to knee-jerk reactions. Sarfraz is under pressure as also team coach, Mickey Arthur. The skipper insisted on not pressing the panic button and urged everyone to back the squad. “Wholesale changes will not work,” he said.
Needs time: Nazar
Mudassar Nazar, the former Pakistan opener and coach who also served as director of the country’s National Cricket Academy, dittoed.
“If you look at Sarfraz, and I’m talking about his younger days when he was the captain of the U-19 team, he has been groomed for the job. This was a case when Pakistan cricket followed some system. Normally in the past, we never paid heed to grooming a captain. And during his brief tenure as captain, although at times he was found lacking, he also brought results. He won the Champions Trophy and I think the nation owes him a little bit. He should be given a little more time. He has had a lot on his shoulders. He is captaining in three formats and is also a wicketkeeper-batsman. He is doing a reasonable job,” Nazar told The Indian Express.
Pakistan don’t have a viable replacement if they sack Sarfraz. Turning to Shoaib Malik or Mohammad Hafeez would be like turning the clock back. Instead, Nazar criticised the team selection for the Asia Cup. “I thought we could have picked a better team. Certainly, a senior batsman like Hafeez, with loads of experience behind him, would have helped. They should have picked another specialist spinner, keeping an eye on the conditions.”
The former coach, however, agreed that Sarfraz is not pulling his weight as a batsman. “When you put your hands up and say, ‘I will bat at No. 4 or No. 5’ and then don’t deliver, obviously people will ask questions. I think he needs to perform really well against Australia (in the upcoming Test series). In Tests, he will get more time. He will probably bat down the order there – No. 7, which is his customary position. And mostly, he will come up against spin bowlers. And he is strong against spin. Hopefully, he will steady himself and get some runs there.”
Nazar rubbished talks of a crisis. “No crisis. These things happen in India and Pakistan all the time; as soon as we lose. I think the experience of playing India-Pakistan matches in the UAE, with the crowd going full tilt, will make these boys better players.”
Arthur, too, received his support. “He brings something different to the table. He is an experienced coach. The team’s fitness level has improved under him. He has done a reasonable job. Again, he is feeling the heat as well. But he has to put it behind him and get on with his job. Hopefully, Pakistan will do a lot better against Australia. As for the World Cup, it’s still nine months away and a lot of cricket to be played in between.”