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Kamran Abbasi

Is Sarfraz Ahmed Pakistan's best wicketkeeper-batsman ever?

He may only be 12 Tests old, but his stats so far and the calm assurance he showed in Dubai mark him as one to watch

Kamran Abbasi
Kamran Abbasi
Sarfraz Ahmed has been more than just a safety net in Pakistan's lower order  •  AFP

Sarfraz Ahmed has been more than just a safety net in Pakistan's lower order  •  AFP

For a while, the second Test between Pakistan and New Zealand hung in the balance. Pakistan lost their fifth wicket. It wasn't an ordinary wicket, an average player. It was Younis Khan, the form batsman in international cricket.
Younis approached another fifty. He fancied the flight of Mark Craig's offspinners. Pakistan's innings was shifting from a period of quiet reflection to full contemplation of an unlikely victory. Younis danced down the track. Craig dropped short in response. The ball turned and spat at Younis' face. He was only able to defend with a glove and divert it to the hands of slip. With Younis gone, New Zealand's moment had arrived. But Sarfraz Ahmed, the understated revelation of Pakistan's desert uprising, had other ideas.
It is hard to debate with people who don't like the concept of a drawn game after five days of play. They just don't get it. If you don't understand the value of a draw, the heroism in a stalemate, the fascination of a dogged session, Test cricket isn't for you. The sternest examination of temperament is often reserved for the final day, when players are forced to stick or twist and any mistake can bust your team's prospects.
Batsmen face the greatest challenge. Modest targets become insurmountable on a devilish pitch when the mind plays tricks. In these circumstances, Pakistan tend to disintegrate. Routine draws, and even routine wins, become extraordinary defeats, leaving supporters shocked, angry and disillusioned.
Hence, the final day of the second Test promised to be one of intrigue, a true measure of the progress of Misbah-ul-Haq's team. Bad old Pakistan might have lost here. They didn't. Naya Pakistan, the team that convincingly won its last three Tests, might have been expected to pull off another thumping victory. They didn't do that either. Without losing or winning, Pakistan played an impressive final day. We didn't see a reckless assault on a difficult target. We didn't see a strokeless capitulation. Pakistan's innings was measured. The batsmen dug in at times to defy New Zealand, and accelerated at others to push for a win. The chase failed - that's the reality of Test cricket on a spiteful final-day track - but it was the approach that mattered, that spoke of a new maturity in this squad.
Sarfraz Ahmed has been pivotal to this revolution. A few mistakes haven't detracted from his neat glovework, but it is his batting that has helped transform Pakistan. One of the many batting problems is the general inabilty of the lower order to contribute. The bowlers still need to rise to the batting challenge. Sarfraz, meanwhile, has gone beyond handy contributions to take his place as a top-order batsman. Averaging over 45 in Tests, he is a tier above any of his predecessors.
Inevitably, those stats will be tested when he plays away from the UAE, but the gap is a significant one. Kamran Akmal is a distant second, with an average of 30.79. Kamran has scored six centuries in 53 Tests, Moin Khan four in 69, Sarfraz already has three in 12. In terms of a wicketkeeper-batsman, Pakistan have never had it so good.
The calm authority with which Sarfraz secured a draw is invaluable for the development of this Pakistan team. Sterner tests and greater pressures lie ahead, but he has set a course for a career to watch
The first Pakistan keeper I saw was Wasim Bari, whose status was somehow legendary. Everything about Bari was big. Big pads, big shirt collars and big hair. Everything, that is, except his batting average. With an average of 15.88 (in 81 Tests), the "great" Bari is the worst wicketkeeper-batsman since the 1970s. His keeping was decent but unreliable. In truth, much wasn't expected of him in a side that fielded woefully.
Saleem Yousuf was identified by Imran Khan as a fighter, and although he lacked the flamboyance of Bari, he was a step up in batting and keeping. Saleem was an irritant. He was noisy and sometimes pushed the boundaries, as when claiming a catch off Ian Botham at Headingley; he had dropped the ball and then retrieved it. But Pakistan required irritants at that time to fit with Imran's strategy of shedding any post-imperial deference to his opponents.
Moin's batting average was similar to Saleem's but he scored enough hundreds and fifties to offer a batting dimension that his predecessors were unable to. He was a chirpy keeper, making up in comment what he lacked in glovework. In terms of batting, there wasn't much to choose between him and Rashid Latif. Rashid was a superior keeper, possibly the best gloveman in Pakistan's history, and a more stylish batsman, although his opportunities were limited by team politics.
Surprisingly, Kamran's record compares favourably, his dismissals per Test being higher than any of these keepers. But statistics can lie. Kamran's keeping was a liability, especially from 2006 onwards, yet he managed to keep out his brother Adnan Akmal and Sarfraz mainly on the promise of his batting. It now seems even more inexplicable that Sarfraz was ignored for so long.
He may only be 12 Tests in but Sarfraz has an opportunity to better all of Pakistan's previous wicketkeepers. Pakistan have never had the luxury of a keeper who is a reliable gloveman and can play as a top-order batsman. That role has ben fundamental to the leading international teams of the last 40 years.
Pakistan have had many stars in these series against Australia and New Zealand, yet Sarfraz has had little attention. His contributions have been huge, from his lightning century to demoralise Australia in the first Test of that contest, to ensuring that Pakistan closed down New Zealand's total in the first innings here.
The session at the end epitomised the fascination of Test cricket. With little to play for, Sarfraz's character was on trial. The calm authority with which he secured a draw is invaluable for the development of this Pakistan team. Sterner tests and greater pressures lie ahead, but Sarfraz Ahmed has set a course for a career to watch.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. @KamranAbbasi