The expulsion of Sarfaraz Ahmed is more than a cosmetic change, and a larger cultural shift for Pakistan cricket, at a time when they’re striving to break away from the recent past and construct a new identity. They have a new coach, chief selector—one and the same man—and a new skipper was only expected, as it was imperative. Hence, the appointment of Azhar Ali and Babar Azam should be viewed through multiple prisms.
A question of identity
Foreign coaches and Pakistan cricket—they’ve seldom been a stickable match. South African Mickey Arthur, who has lugged around with most teams in the world, even more so. His tactical inflexibility and school headmaster-like rigidity didn’t quite bode well for Pakistan cricket, which produces its best when unshackled.
Arthur, together with Inzamam-ul-Haq, the chief selector, and Sarfaraz Ahmed, formed an awkward trio. Inzamam, terrific a cricketer as he was, was often detached and conventional with his choice. Sarfaraz lacked the charisma Pakistan cricket-audience is fixated with. Pakistan cricket, since its early days, has been obsessed with the charismatic captain narrative, a team formed in the grander qualities and image of its leader.
Pakistan cricket likes to see itself shining in the Lahoriness of its cricket than the Karachiness, which Sarfaraz embodied. Sarfaraz didn’t exude the body of work to command the unadulterated respect of his teammates. While he embodies the more workman-like virtues of Karachi cricket, his own image didn’t help.
Like his aversion to gym work, the yawn that launched the collective laughter of the cricket fraternity during the World Cup, his clumsiness behind the stumps and the not-so-nuanced sledging (Andile Phehlukwayo incident) didn’t quite strike a chord back home. It didn’t help either that he couldn’t coerce results. Though his record is still impeccable in T20Is—29 wins in 37 games—he couldn’t inspire them in Tests. South Africa blanked them 3-0, before New Zealand, surpassed them 2-1 in their UAE fortress.
Azhar Ali is the opposite, Lahore-born, educated and sophisticated, much like Misbah, who were teammates in Sui Gas Limited as well as national teammates. Quite early in Ali’s days, Misbah had anointed him as his potential successor, Ali credits him for finetuning his batting, especially against fast bowlers on bouncy tracks. Unlike Arthur, whose coaching style had split verdicts, Misbah is the most revered Pakistani cricketer of this decade.
Ali is 34, but they’re grooming Babar Azam to succeed in the future. Giving him the captaincy in T20Is is a step in that direction. On paper, it looks a recipe for success, though, in Pakistan cricket, the narratives seldom unfurl on a predicted, linear pattern.
A question of form
Sarfaraz is often considered an accidental captain. Some reckon he’s an accidental wicketkeeper too. It was his razzle-dazzle with the bat that gave him a head start over his contemporaries. But once the returns with the bat diminished, allied with his reluctance to bat any higher than No 5, his place in the team began to be scrutinised.
Around the same time, Mohammad Rizwan, a technically sound ’keeper, began to put more work in his batting and improved to such an extent that since the 2016-17 season, he has averaged 72 in 37 innings. In the same span, Sarfaraz’s returns digressed. As skipper, he averaged only 25 in Tests, 32 in ODIs and 27 in T20Is. The last one was not a bad number, but the overall listlessness couldn’t be masked for long.
Misbah, in his very first press conference, had asserted that he wouldn’t be averse to assign leadership duties to domestic veterans, even if they’re callow in international cricket (Rizwan has just featured in a single Test, 32 ODIs and 13 T20Is). Significantly, Rizwan had inspired his domestic side Sui Gas to three titles in four years. Keen as a follower of domestic cricket, his achievements wouldn’t have escaped the notice of Mishah, also a Sui Gas player.
A question of change
Having won their last, and only, 50-over World Cup in 1992 and their T20 triumph a decade ago, their Test fortunes plummeting, it was time Pakistan team got a makeover. Sarfaraz could be construed as a scapegoat for their failures in the latest World Cup, but Pakistan has been quite stuck under his leadership. Soon after a coaching change and system shake-up, it was only anticipated that Pakistan needed a new skipper, one who would bring new ideas and fresh outlook.
Misbah has already laid out his plans, with an emphasis on fitness. Already, he has changed the diet and nutrition plans, one of the reasons for his longevity in international cricket. After he turned 40, he cut out carbs, rotis, biriyanis and dinner from diet. He expects a similar level of discipline from his wards, and the pudgy Sarfaraz didn’t quite fit into the new image that Pakistan cricket aspires to.
A question of future
Sarfaraz’s form hasn’t been laudable in 50-over cricket, so if he doesn’t bounce back with a string of big scores, his last slice of international cricket too might evaporate. Meanwhile, he needs to file timely reminders to the selectors so that if Rizwan struggles, he could chart his was back. It doesn’t help that he’s 32.