Sarfraz puts onus on seniors for World Cup berth
Limited-overs captain Sarfraz Ahmed expects Pakistan's senior players to step up in the West Indies in their bid for direct qualification to the 2019 World Cup. He emphasised the importance of senior fast bowlers Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz taking wickets to make a difference on the upcoming tour, which starts with four T20I games from March 26.
"In the T20 format we might have a relatively young bowling side but in ODIs we have three senior bowlers - Amir, Wahab and Junaid Khan. We have spoken to them and reminded them that they are seniors, have played ample cricket, and now have to step up," Sarfraz said at the conclusion of a week-long conditioning camp in Lahore. "We are working on fielding but with our bowling department we need to take wickets with new ball and in middle overs. We have worked very hard in the camp and now I am hopeful that they will make a difference in the West Indies and help Pakistan win with their bowling."
Sarfraz's own career has been marred with inconsistency since his debut in 2007. It wasn't until 2014 that he turned it around, after Adnan Akmal was ruled out of the Sri Lanka series in the UAE. He scored 48 against Sri Lanka in Sharjah, and has since become an integral part of the national side in all formats, recently replacing Azhar Ali to become ODI captain.
Under Azhar's leadership, Pakistan slipped to ninth position - a record low - in the ODI rankings. They have since risen one place but they barely scraped into this year's Champions Trophy. Pakistan won only five of the ten bilateral series under Azhar: two against Zimbabwe, and one each against Ireland, Sri Lanka and West Indies. In all, Pakistan lost 18 games and won 12.
"I understand that over the last two years Pakistan's performance in ODI cricket hasn't been good," Sarfraz said. "We have been trying really hard to minimize our mistakes. There were some flaws, especially in the fielding department, and we have been working hard to iron them out. We were scoring 280 to 290 but then dropping catches in the field, and this was hurting our chances. We are aware how important World Cup qualification is, so our focus is on winning the series and strengthening our position."
Pakistan selectors recently named five uncapped cricketers for the limited-overs series, but also called up two senior players who had been out of favour. Ahmed Shehzad and Kamran Akmal were named in both the T20 and ODI squads after impressive domestic runs.
"I feel the role of our senior players, especially [Mohammad] Hafeez, Shoaib Malik, Amir and Wahab is very important," Sarfraz said. "There are junior players with us and both Kamran and Ahmed [Shehzad] are making their comeback, so I expect our senior players, including myself, to lead from the front. We have been scoring 280 or so but we need to get totals above 300. Besides, our fast bowlers need to take wickets to give us the best possible chance."
The recent corruption allegations that surfaced in the PSL made opener Sharjeel Khan, along with Mohammad Irfan, Shahzaib Hasan, and Khalid Latif unavailable for selection. "It's a bad thing in many ways and it disappoints you," Sarfraz said. "Because some players are set in the team, and with their ouster the combination of the team gets upset. Sharjeel was not only settled in but was exactly the sort of player we needed to open the batting. He was the kind of batsman who played cricket in line with modern-day requirements. His absence will be felt but whoever comes in as a replacement will also be an outstanding player, and they can give their best to take Pakistan forward.
"These young players that we brought in are very talented and they have been selected after consistent domestic performances. They have been outstanding and this is the reason they got a chance. It's good that they are getting the opportunity at a time when cricket isn't being played in the country. It's also a good sign that they are getting a chance and hopefully these boys can convert their domestic form in international cricket."
Sarfraz denied that the added responsibility of being a wicketkeeper-batsman as well as captain put him under extra pressure. He also dismissed suggestions that having Kamran Akmal back in the side threatened his own place. "I am not feeling any pressure, it's a good thing that Kami bhai came in after performing well. Earlier [Mohammad] Rizwan was around with me so there is no pressure at all. Kami bhai has been performing in domestic cricket, and we expect him to contribute here too, which will help Pakistan."
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent