LONDON:It was only in February that Azhar Ali announced a decision that looked inevitable for at least six months. For a team where captaincy has often been a musical chair, the stability that Misbah-ul-Haq brought, and Shahid Afridi’s presence, meant there were no frequent chops, but what did happen was that nobody cared to groom another captain from within. In Pakistan, captaincy brings about a whole lot of things, like ego clashes among seniors and infighting. It even tested temperaments of the best of players. Ask Younis Khan.
Under Ali, Pakistan had slumped to their lowest ever ODI ranking of nine, and a change of guard was completed, although the team had just about managed to sneak into the Champions Trophy, when the cut-off date ended at the expense of West Indies. Let alone captaincy, even his batting, despite being a reliable player at the top, was questioned as his old-fashioned style of cricket seemed to take the team nowhere.
But on Sunday, in the company of Fakhar Zaman, the 32-year-old gave Pakistan their first 100-run opening partnership in any ICC event against their arch-rivals. The same stability that he was bringing, which was under scrutiny not so long ago, was now taking Pakistan to the unlikeliest of wins.
“Well, people keep saying lots of things. But I never let it bother me because I know what my role is in the team, and I stick to it. As an opener, you don’t want opposition to get early wickets, and that’s what I try and do, and allow other batsmen to play around me. When I stepped aside as captain, I wasn’t dejected, as I knew Sarfraz (Ahmed) would do a good job, and gave my 100 per cent to him, and he backed me. We still have a long way to go, because despite winning this trophy, we’re still eighth (they moved to sixth on Monday) and we still have to get direct qualification for the 2019 World Cup,” Ali said.
The arrival of Sarfraz has not brought about wholesale changes. A motor-mouth behind the stumps, the wicketkeeper has something in him that reminds you of mavericks from the 90s. He isn’t exceptional with the bat or the glove, but is street-smart, and knows when and how to speed up the game and go for the kill. He doesn’t hide his emotions, doesn’t speak like a leader, but what he definitely does is fight. Under him, the Pakistan U-19 side defended 109 against India to lift the world title. Here, as captain of the senior side, he gave Pakistan their first win over India in any ICC event in eight years.
“Can’t express my feelings. The team’s morale was down after losing to India in Birmingham. There was lots of hard talk after that. Then we played every game like it was a knockout game. Credit to the boys and coaching staff. No superstars, youngsters are good; they’re committed. This is the first ICC event for many of them. Nobody believed we’d win. Many felt we couldn’t beat India. So credit to all players and coaching staff for working hard,” Sarfraz said.
For the major part of his interaction, Sarfraz just couldn’t stop smiling, as the medal sitting on his neck was glowing in the light. And he couldn’t help bringing up the topic of Pakistan being isolated by international teams. Ever since the terror attacks on the Sri Lankan team in 2009, only Zimbabwe have toured Pakistan (2015), and even then there was a bomb blast just outside the Gadaffi Stadium. But early this year, the PCB brought the Pakistan Super League final to Lahore, and this September, a combined World XI side is set to play three ODIs in Lahore.
“We didn’t have cricket at home for eight years. It was a big setback. We were playing in Dubai. Nobody was ready to come. I expect that all international teams will now visit Pakistan. The PSL has really helped, the way the tournament has been successfully conducted for the last 2 years. Now, nobody can say we haven’t beaten India in the World Cup or a major tournament. When we arrived, we were No 8 in the world. Now, we’re champions. Hopefully, this will boost Pakistan cricket, and all countries will now visit Pakistan,” Sarfraz added.