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18 June 2017, London: Sarfraz Ahmed was one of the most admired figures in contemporary Pakistan cricket after he led his side to a crushing 180-run win over India in the 2017 Champions Trophy final.

MS Dhoni had helped India win the Champions Trophy in 2013. In 2017, Sarfraz Ahmed – another wicketkeeper – led Pakistan to the Champions Trophy title. The similarities were uncanny and hopes for a glorious future were aplenty.

26 December 2019, Centurion: Sarfraz Ahmed would be playing the first Test against South Africa with an impending danger not only on his captaincy but his place in the Test XI.

A decent wicketkeeper and an effective batsman, Mohammad Rizwan has been picked in the Test squad for South Africa and can get a nod ahead of the skipper given Pakistan’s poor run against the Proteas. God forbid if the 31-year-old flops in the four innings of the first two Tests and Pakistan don’t do well; the coupled force of this can be strong enough to affect the change.

Mounting pressure

Post the Champions Trophy win, the Pakistan team has seen a tumultuous time. To begin with, the side lost a Test series 2-0 to Sri Lanka in UAE; a venue which had been a fortress until then for Pakistan. After a win against a weak Sri Lankan ODI side, a 5-0 pasting against New Zealand was to be had.

All the cracks were papered over for the next few months as Sarfraz & co kept convincingly beating weaker oppositions. But then came the Asia Cup and all the chinks in the Pakistani armour were revealed at once.

Two humiliating defeats against India and a loss against Bangladesh sent the team packing from the Asia Cup. Mohammad Amir was sacked but it’s Sarfraz’s captaincy which came under the scanner the most.

 ©AFP

©AFP

"Look, the pressures of captaincy are always there," he said after the loss against Bangladesh. "Pakistani captains, whoever they are, always have pressure. Obviously, when you aren't performing and the team is losing then there is more pressure.

"The truth is that if I say I haven't slept for the last six nights nobody will believe me but… this is part of life and it will go on. I will say again we don't need to press the panic button."

The panic button was not pressed. The selectors showed faith in Sarfraz and pleasing results followed. After playing top-notch cricket against Australia and New Zealand – in the limited overs leg – things started going down south again in the Test against the Kiwis.

Following repeated batting collapses, Pakistan, in essence, gifted the Test series 2-1 to the Kiwis. That being Sarfraz’s fourth loss in seven home Tests, things began to get serious and the skipper was aware of that.

When faced with the question of whether he would reconsider Test captaincy on the South Africa tour if things don’t go as per plan, Sarfraz said, "When things like this happen, you do start to think about it.

"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."

The head of Pakistan's recently-formed cricket committee, Mohsin Khan, has not made matters any easier for Sarfraz after openly stating that he should step down from the Test captaincy. The keeper-batsman has been given no guarantees by the board to remain the captain for the long run. Things are pretty much ad hoc as of now.

Sarfraz, the batsman

Not debating about the degree, the first thing to be conceded is that there does exist a problem. If not with his captaincy, then with his batting; if not in the shorter format, then in the Tests.

When do you last remember Sarfraz acknowledging the crowd and brandishing his bat, with his helmet off, after scoring a Test ton?

Try.

And now try more.

 ©AFP

©AFP

You possibly won’t remember. And one can’t blame you for that. It has just been that long. Sarfraz last scored a Test century in 2014 against New Zealand in Dubai.

Even if we keep the captaincy tactics aside – which undoubtedly have been questionable – does Sarfraz, the batsman, has it in him to continue at the highest level.

What’s worse, the timing of the plummet has not panned out quite well for him. For if you don’t want to be under tough scrutiny for your batting on any tour, it is in South Africa. One thing is for sure, against the swinging and seaming deliveries of Vernon Philander, against the searing pace of Kagiso Rabada, against the guile of the resurgent Dale Steyn, Sarfraz will be tested to the limit.

And this will either make or break him. If he is good enough to find a way to score under testing conditions and against a top-quality bowling attack, he would have then passed the litmus test. If he can score given these variants, he can then score anywhere in the world and against any bowling opposition. But if he cannot, I’m afraid, it’s time to look beyond.

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