Sarfraz Ahmed knows how to defy his critics. Since his salad days as a budding cricketer, he has defied both his critics and the odds even when they were heavily stacked against him.
On Wednesday night, he did that again by leading his young Pakistan team to a comprehensive 2-0 triumph in a brief Twenty20 International series against Scotland.
At the picturesque Grange cricket ground in Edinburgh, Pakistan thrashed Scotland in back-to-back Twenty20 International games to cap what was largely a successful tour of Britain and Ireland.
Not many gave Pakistan much of a chance when they left for the British isles last month for what was quite an ill-planned tour with a one-off Test against newcomers Ireland, two more against England and a couple of T20 games in Scotland.
After all, Pakistan were without their most celebrated batting duo - Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq. The two played major roles when Pakistan last played and drew a Test series in England. Then another of their key players, Yasir Shah was also missing. The leggie bamboozled England’s batsman on the last tour and was one of the chief reasons why Pakistan managed to secure a respectable 2-2 result in the four-Test series.
But Sarfraz remained buoyant. It was apparent that while the critics doubted his young touring party, he had a lot of faith in his team-mates.And it turned out that he wasn’t off the mark.
After playing a couple of warm-up games in England, the Pakistanis camped at The Malahide - the venue of Ireland’s historic first Test - in May.
Pakistan did face some anxious moments but managed to stop Ireland, the 11th nation to play Test cricket, from becoming the first team to win their inaugural Test since Australia did so in their very first outing back in 1877.
The Irish hopes were bolstered by a memorable 118 by Kevin O’Brien who kept the home team in the game despite being forced to follow-on. In the end, however, there was no miracle and the Pakistanis walked away with a five-wicket win.
The high point of Pakistan’s tour came a few days later at Lord’s where the tourists fully exploited the chinks in England’s armour on their way to a stunning nine-wicket triumph.
Unlike the previous tour when the likes of Younis, Misbah or Yasir stood out and almost singlehandedly paved the path for victories at Lord’s and The Oval, this time at it was a pure team effort that helped Pakistan go one up in the two-match series. The pace trio of Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Abbas and Hasan Ali were instrumental and so were the quartet of Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Babar Azam and Shadab Khan, who all made fifties in the first innings after Pakistan dismissed England for just 184.
But Pakistan’s jubilation was short-lived as their own weaknesses were exposed under the overcast skies of Headingley in the second and final Test.
Hurt and embarrassed by their humiliation at Lord’s, an angry England launched a potent assault at Leeds and Pakistan were just outclassed. The Headingley Test was a mirror image of the Lord’s match but the roles were reversed. It was over in three days with Pakistan suffering an innings defeat.
It was then that Sarfraz’s critics were back with a vengeance. They questioned his credentials and raised doubts whether he was the right choice to lead Pakistan in all three formats. What went against Sarfraz was his below-par form with the bat. He might have blossomed as a leader of a young outfit but Sarfraz was clearly struggling with the bat.
But just when things were getting tough, Sarfraz regained his golden form with a career-best 89* from just 49 balls as Pakistan returned to their favourite format. Together with Shoaib Malik, Sarfraz guided Pakistan to a 48-run victory in the first of the two T20 International games against Scotland at The Grange earlier this week.
His sparkling knock was a clear reminder that Sarfraz deserved his place as the leader of the pack. Pakistan returned to the field on Wednesday and smashed Scotland again, this time by 84 runs.
With the 2-0 triumph, Sarfraz has tied with Shahid Afridi as the most successful Pakistan captain in the T20 format. Wednesday’s win was Pakistan’s 19th victory in 22 T20 Internationals that they have played under Sarfraz’s leadership. Afridi also captained them to an equal number of wins but from 43 matches.
Sarfraz now has a success rate of 86 percent that makes him the most successful captain in T20 cricket. The 31-year-old has lead Pakistan to 11 wins in their last 12 T20I games. Under him, Pakistan have won all the eight T20I series they have played and that include contests against England, West Indies, ICC World XI, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and now Scotland. Their last T20 series defeat came in New Zealand back in 2016. With such a record, its hardly surprising that Pakistan are at the top in the ICC T20I rankings.
But as any good leader, Sarfraz credits his team for all the success achieved by Pakistan during the last two years.
“The credit goes to the youngsters who have been doing so well,” he said referring to the likes of Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf, Usman Shinwari and Hasan Ali. “Our bowlers deserve praise as they have been defending all sorts of targets even in such small grounds,” he added referring to Pakistan’s victory at The Grange.
The back-to-back T20I wins against Scotland might not be a big feat for the top-ranked Pakistanis but the results couldn’t have come at a better time for Sarfraz.
The series-winning triumph has not only silenced his critics but has also added to the confidence and morale of a young Pakistani team that is now aiming at next year’s ICC World Cup in England.
Khalid Hussain is Editor Sports of The News