Should Pakistan worry about Sarfaraz Ahmed's form?

Sarfaraz Ahmed is bowled Getty Images

On Wednesday at the National Stadium in Karachi, Sarfaraz Ahmed did something unusual, something he'd only done twice since he became ODI captain: he came in to bat at No. 4.

To start with, he had said explicitly at the start of the series that he would bat at No. 5. The two occasions that necessitated him coming up the order in recent times occurred in the Asia Cup last year when Pakistan had lost two early wickets. Besides, Sarfaraz's ostensible reticence to bat higher up the order has been an issue that's bubbled away below the surface for over a year; even batting at five has been a recent phenomenon. Before May 2019, Sarfaraz had batted at that position just once in the past 35 ODIs, and higher on only the two aforementioned occasions.

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It was why the promotion to four for the third ODI was eyebrow-raising. He had elevated himself above Haris Sohail, who averages 46.11 in ODIs, and over 50 since the start of the year, and has shown form since being recalled midway through the World Cup. Pakistan had lost their second wicket at 181, and it wasn't yet 30 overs.

If it was an attempt to lay down a marker of the quirky, streetwise batting smarts Sarfaraz still feels Pakistan require, it would fall somewhat flat. The Pakistan captain scratched around for 23 off 33 balls, with just the one boundary coming off a spinner's full-toss. Meanwhile, 43 runs had been added by the batsman at the other end, which, ironically, was Haris for much of Sarfaraz's stay. In the end, Pakistan won comfortably, so the move escaped too much scrutiny.

Now Sarfaraz's riposte may rightfully be that he cops stick for batting both too low and too high, which is fair enough. But what should worry Pakistan supporters, and Sarfaraz himself most of all, is wherever he seems to bat, it just doesn't seem quite right. He has hit just two sixes in his last 26 ODIs, so any time after the 35th over is usually too late. But with the current top four, walking out earlier seems ill-suited to Pakistan's needs.

Since the day he scored an unbeaten 61 to get Pakistan through to the 2017 Champions Trophy semi-final, Sarfaraz has captained Pakistan in 44 ODIs. In 18 of those games, he has either not batted or finished unbeaten for under 15. In a further 12, he's managed fewer than 15 runs, and scored just three fifties. In the meantime, his wicketkeeping hasn't quite been doing the heavy lifting to make up for his batting woes either.

A team where the captain hasn't nailed down his place is rarely a settled unit. It is why most sides hand the leadership role over to their best batsman, even when palpably superior tacticians and strategists reside within. It is, let's be honest, the only justification for handing Babar Azam the vice-captaincy. Babar, besides his captain, is the only player guaranteed a spot in all three formats, and as his captain would tell him, that is something worth coveting.

Mohammad Rizwan, Pakistan's second-choice keeper, has been breathing down Sarfaraz's neck, despite his almost complete absence from any playing XIs over the past two-and-a-half years. The only times Rizwan has played for Pakistan since January 2017, back in those almost surreal days when Azhar Ali was ODI captain, were the five limited-overs matches in South Africa while Sarfaraz was serving a ban, and a further five ODIs against Australia that Pakistan used as an experiment ahead of the World Cup. Rizwan would score two centuries in that latter series, as many as Sarfaraz has in his entire ODI career.

Even so, Pakistan opted not to take him to the World Cup, suggesting they had other back-up keepers in the side in case they were required. Ahead of this ODI series against Sri Lanka, Sarfaraz made a deliberate point of revealing Rizwan was in the side as a specialist batsman, effectively saying he was the only keeper-batsman in the side. In the T20Is, Rizwan was left out - though with that being Sarfaraz's securest suit, both as captain and batsman, it isn't quite so shocking.

So what makes Sarfaraz so indispensable to Pakistan? Simply put, there isn't, at present, anyone who can take over as Pakistan captain and command nearly as much authority as the 32-year-old does. Sarfaraz is popular enough in the side for the players to get behind him, despite his at times overbearing presence on the field, and the constant rebukes that can come off looking domineering on TV.

Off camera, he can be jovial and self-deprecating, with even many of the youngest players able to interact with him as a colleague and a friend. Mickey Arthur said much the same in a recent interview with ESPNcricinfo. "Saifi's a wonderful leader, and you judge the leader by the respect the players have for him. Saifi can be this hard dictator on the field and look like he's in the players' faces, but he comes off the field and he's like their big brother. He's in their corner, laughing and joking with them."

A relaxed Sarfaraz is a wonderful Sarfaraz; it's probably why the best we've seen of him in the past three years has been in the purple and gold of Quetta Gladiators, the franchise he led to PSL glory this year. There may be occasional resentment from the odd player about his conduct, but no genuine hostility.

And he isn't a terrible captain either. That series Pakistan played without Sarfaraz in March? They lost 5-0.

Yes, he can let games drift sometimes, and begin going through the motions when under pressure - giving the final over to Wahab Riaz despite the wretched day he'd had on Wednesday was a clear indication of that. But Pakistan, partially through their own short-sightedness, haven't groomed a captain waiting in the wings to take over. It is why even people who agree Sarfaraz's captaincy days are numbered can't quite rally around a replacement. It is why even when the PCB did away with the entire backroom staff, from head coach to chief selector, it stuck with the same captain for all three formats. For now, he is probably the best Pakistan have.

But the times, as Bob Dylan almost said of the PCB 55 years ago, they are a-changin'. Over the last year or so, the PCB has seen its chairman replaced, the domestic structure overhauled, the coaches and chief selectors done away with; even the media department has been almost completely revamped. Amidst this revolution, Sarfaraz manages to stand firm as Pakistan captain. He's a scrappy cricketer who got to where he is by refusing to let go, and for now, Sarfaraz holds on.