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Sarfraz’s redemption
ICC Champions Trophy

Sarfraz’s redemption

The seventh match of the ICC Champions Trophy between Pakistan and South Africa was scheduled to be held on a fresh Edgbaston wicket. But persistent drizzle in Birmingham had softened the surface, making it unfit for the contest. The ground staff was forced to revert to the wicket on which Pakistan had played their Champions Trophy opener against India.

Call it a rude awakening, but Pakistan designed their XI as the conditions demanded. It was in stark contrast to their lineup three days ago with two changes to their side: one forced, the other almost forced. Junaid Khan, who had bagged a 4-for on the same venue against a feisty Bangladesh in a first warm-up 10 days ago, filled in for an injured Wahab Riaz. For his abysmal batting and a terrible show in the field, Ahmed Shehzad made way for debutant Fakhar Zaman.

The right (or the better) team had been chosen. But that did not translate into a surge in bets on Pakistan. After all, it was the mighty South Africa, ranked number one in the ODI rankings, that they were up against.

Beyond being a contest between two sides on the opposite ends of the cricketing spectrum it also provided Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed with a shot undoing the tactical disaster he had pulled off against India.

The Pakistan captain looked to bat on this pitch, which was bound to deteriorate with time, so his spinners could exploit it later in the day. But the unfavourable result at the toss did not bother Pakistan as a totally different Sarfraz had turned up. A Sarfraz that had somehow mastered the game within 72 hours.

Keeping it simple

In what was a component of an ‘out of the box’ plan, Pakistan had opened the bowling with Imad Wasim against an Indian batting lineup that feasts on spinners. Sarfraz had been employing the left-arm orthodox in previous matches to block the flow of runs during the powerplay overs. But the plan here had no significance due to the batsmen’s focus on settling in the initial overs of the 50-over cricket rather than finding boundaries.

If the introduction intended to induce an uncharacteristic stroke, it went in vain due because no fielders warded the catching positions to exert pressure. The jitters felt due to Mohammad Amir’s impeccable maiden over had gone for good.

Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan struck a 136-run opening partnership, providing the batsmen below them a perfect platform to unleash in the death overs.

" Beyond being a contest between two sides on the opposite ends of the cricketing spectrum it also provided Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed with a shot undoing the tactical disaster he had pulled off against India. "

Against South Africa, Sarfraz resorted to keeping things simple. He opened with Mohammad Amir and Junaid Khan, a duo that had been opening the bowling for Pakistan in Australia and the West Indies. They hurled eight overs at Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock, only yielding a few ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ when they beat batsmen outside the off-stump.

But their inability to dismantle the opening pair did not bother Sarfraz as he had his spinners to let loose on the South African lineup. He required the pacers to scuff up the ball for his spinners.

Things changed in the ninth over when he brought on Imad as the first change bowler. On his second ball of the contest, Imad enticed Amla into putting his weight on the backfoot to negotiate his length ball and it yielded the opening Sarfraz had been longing.

I. Wasim to H. Amla, LBW

Unleashing ‘the Professor’ on lefties

Mohammad Hafeez bowled against South Africa!

The move had been anticipated, but still stunned the spectators because of how Sarfraz had refused to bowl him against India despite his excellent record against the left-handed batsmen facing a lineup that had Dhawan and Yuvraj Singh in the top four.

Sarfraz on Wednesday did not hold back the Professor and brought him into the attack as soon as the 10th over as de Kock looked to free his arms. The left-handed batsman had faced 30 balls by then. Hafeez began with the flighted deliveries. De Kock gathered four runs off the first two balls Hafeez darted at him. The next over brought a glimpse of success, the promise that Sarfraz’s plan had begun to work.

After pushing Hafeez down for a double and a single in the first four balls of the over, de Kock was beaten with a slower flighted delivery that struck on his pads. Sarfraz and Hafeez appealed in unison. But umpire turned the shout down. Pakistan opted against the review, which had provided them another wicket. But Sarfraz’s decision to go against the review made sense. The review seemed risky as the ball seemed to be clipping the leg-stump. One can back Sarfraz as the ‘umpire’s call’ not only deprive the sides of the crucial blows, but exhaust their only review.

De Kock was undone in the next over. Hafeez’s straighter one, the most lethal delivery of his repertoire, struck on his pads as he lunged for a sweep. The umpire raised his finger this time and the Proteas were reduced to 60 for 2.

Mohammad Hafeez accounts for Quinton de Kock's wicket

Aggressive field sets

Recent Pakistan ODI captains have been scrutinized for their ‘defensive approach’ towards the format. The appointment of Sarfraz at the helm, after Pakistan’s forgettable tour of Australia, predicted a change in the way the team went about 50-over cricket.

But Sarfraz’s first outing in a global tournament, brought back the ghosts of defensive field settings for which Misbah-ul-Haq and Azhar Ali had been picked apart.

Sharma had been on the receiving end of Amir’s teasing length deliveries. With a couple of close beats outside the off-stump, the left-arm quick had been seeking the leading edge since the first over. The fierce battle between Amir and Sharma mounted ball by ball and the former had the latter trapped by the seventh over. The pacer induced a thick edge of the batsman’s blade and what should have been a sitter for a second slip rammed into advertising skirting. The reason? Sarfraz had moved the second slip to midwicket by then.

Rohit Sharma gets a four off an edge

But on the day his side pulled off a remarkable victory against the world’s best limited-overs side, Sarfraz had kept the slip corridor alive as late as the third powerplay.

The abrasive surface of the wicket helped his side prepare the ball for the reverse swing. Anticipating the swing to come into play, Sarfraz placed Babar Azam at the slip during the 29th over off Hasan Ali’s bowling and it paid off.

Hasan hurled a scorcher at JP Duminy that moved a fraction away from the left-hander before taking an edge of the bat to go to the first slip. South Africa now had half of their batsmen back in pavilion for 118.

Pakistan turned out victorious by 19 runs (DLS method) after relentless showers interfered the chase. The win ended a five-match-long ignominious streak of five consecutive losses in the Champions Trophy, stretching back to 2009. It also put them in contention for a semi-final berth. But more importantly, it gave the Pakistan skipper much-needed redemption to put Pakistan back on track in the ODI cricket.

When Simon Doull asked Sarfraz what inspired the paradigm shift in Pakistan’s approach, a surefooted Sarfraz noted that he had recognised the need to play the top-notch cricket that the tournament demanded.

However, with Pakistan one can never be sure what Pakistan will turn out. With the semi-final berth beckoning, one gets intrigued when asked how they will fare against Sri Lanka on Monday. But this could be it. The moment that spark the much-needed change in approach towards the 50-over game.