1969 was an eventful year. It was the year when humanity put men on the moon. It was the year when Gaddafi took over Libya. In Pakistan, Ayub Khan relinquished power to Yahya Khan. That year the Pakistanis also lost a home series against New Zealand. It was an embarrassment that didn’t happen again for 49 years. Not until Pakistan’s meek surrender at the Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi last Friday.
Pakistan crashed to a 123-run defeat in the series decider despite taking a first innings lead against the Black Caps. They lost despite having the world’s most lethal spinner on a wicket that was tailor made to assist them.
The defeat was disappointing but hardly surprising. Under Sarfraz’s captaincy, it was Pakistan’s fourth loss in seven Tests in the UAE. It was also his second Test series defeat in the UAE in two seasons. Such results would have been unthinkable under the command of Misbah-ul-Haq.
That’s why it was hardly surprising when Sarfraz conceded that he could give up Test captaincy soon after his batting line-up crumbled on the final day of the last Test. Sarfraz has been under pressure for quite some time and his critics have been sharpening their knives, looking for his scalp after every failure. Each defeat, both in Tests and One-day Internationals, has been bringing him nearer to the end. It could come soon.
Pakistan’s next Test assignment is in South Africa. The away series which begins with a Boxing Day Test at Centurion later this month would be Pakistan’s toughest in recent times. One would predict a 3-0 whitewash and if that happens then you know what will happen next.
Pakistan’s three-match series against South Africa could be Sarfraz Ahmed’s last assignment as Test captain. But do they have a suitable replacement?
Among those pondering that question was Sarfraz himself. When queried after the Abu Dhabi debacle whether it was time for him to step down as Test captain, Sarfraz told reporters on Friday that he was certainly thinking about it.
“When things like this happen, you do start to think about it,” he commented.
“But let’s see what happens. The tour of South Africa is a tough one and if you start thinking like this before it then it is not helpful for anyone. If I make mistakes, or it is because of me that the team is losing then I will definitely think about it, and if there is someone better than me to do the Test captaincy, then he should.”
And that’s a big if. I don’t see anybody in the current Pakistan line-up who would qualify as a suitable candidate to lead Pakistan in Tests and later ODIs. Mohammad Hafeez has retired from Test cricket. So has Shoaib Malik. In any case both were too old to be given charge of the team. We have tried Azhar Ali but without success. Asad Shafiq is yet to really prove his mettle. Babar Azam doesn’t look like captaincy material.
So who else is there?
That said, it is quite evident that Sarfraz isn’t the man either. Expectations were high when he succeeded Shahid Afridi as Pakistan’s Twenty20 captain and later took over as the skipper in all three formats. Then, he seemed like a perfect captain, somebody who could lead the team from the front. His initial successes now seem like a false dawn. Instead of getting better with time Sarfraz has exposed his weaker side, time and again. His team has consistently done well in the T20 format but Tests and even ODIs are a different story. Yes, there was the stunning title-winning triumph at the ICC Champions Trophy in England but since then Pakistan have failed to really click in the 50-over format. Their disappointing run in September’s Asia Cup in the UAE was a big proof that Pakistan have to cover a lot of ground before they are ready for next summer’s World Cup in England.
But is Sarfraz the only man responsible for Pakistan’s decline in the two formats?
I don’t think so. There is Mickey Arthur, the man who has supervised Pakistan’s downfall in Tests. When he took over as head coach, Pakistan were crowned as the world’s number one Test team (it wasn’t his doing). Now they have slumped to No. 7 (he has certainly played a big role).
Since 2016, Pakistan have experienced six final-day collapses. All of them came under Arthur. Then there is Grant Flower, who has been Pakistan’s batting coach since 2014. What has been his role? Why have Pakistani batsmen failed to attain maturity? Why have they failed to show mental strength?
It is apparent that both Azhar and Asad, Pakistan’s premier Test batsmen following the twin retirement of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, are world-class batters. They have shown that time and again with classic knocks. But unlike Misbah and Younis, they have yet to really click when it mattered most. I would blame them for it. But I would also blame their coaches, both Arthur and Flower.
With the arrival of Ehsan Mani as Chairman PCB and the appointment of the vastly accomplished Wasim Khan as the Board’s managing director, things are changing in Pakistan cricket. But unless men like Arthur, Flower and Sarfraz Ahmed do their job properly, things won’t really change for the better.