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Match Analysis

Sarfaraz savours the high of a thrilling comeback

"If someone would have checked my heartbeat, the meter would have exploded," says the man playing his first Test in four years

Deivarayan Muthu
26-Dec-2022
Sarfaraz Ahmed got to fifty in his comeback Test  •  AP

Sarfaraz Ahmed got to fifty in his comeback Test  •  AP

The build-up to the Karachi Test was particularly chaotic. Pakistan had lost four Tests in a row at home for the first time, including an unprecedented 3-0 whitewash to England. Ramiz Raja was subsequently removed as PCB chairman, with a 14-member management committee headed by Najam Sethi taking interim charge of affairs. Shahid Afridi was originally named in the management committee, but he opted out and took over as the interim chief selector of the Pakistan's men side and made some additions to the squad, two days out of the match.
Pakistan's batting in the first hour mirrored the chaotic build-up. Abdullah Shafique and Shan Masood both jumped out of the crease against spin only to be stumped. It was the first time in the history of men's Test cricket that the first two wickets have fallen to stumpings. Imam-ul-Haq then toe-ended a catch to mid-off, having also advanced against spin. Pakistan were 48 for 3 in 15 overs; they could've been four down had Daryl Mitchell not dropped Babar Azam at slip when he was on 12. Then, when Tim Southee snagged Saud Shakeel, the score read 110 for 4.
Pakistan's superstar Babar and forgotten star Sarfaraz Ahmed, who returned to the XI amid a sea of change, overcame the chaos and stabilised the innings with a 196-run fifth-wicket partnership. It was business as usual for Babar - he scored his fourth Test century in nine Tests in 2022 - but Sarfaraz made a statement in what was his first Test in almost four years and his very first one at home.
He had got cracking with a ram-rod straight drive that rolled away between mid-off and mid-on. Most other batters would have hunkered down in the last over before lunch, but here was a man returning from the wilderness straightaway whacking it. Appearances, of course, can be a bit deceiving.
"You asked me about my feelings when I walked out to bat before lunch," Sarfaraz said in the press conference at the end of the day's play. "If someone would have checked my heartbeat, the meter would have exploded.
"Heartbeat was very fast and it felt like my debut. I was playing after a long time and it was also a crunch situation. During lunch, people who have played with me [in the past] asked me to relax. I told them about my heartbeat which was very fast. When I walked back in, Babar gave me a lot of confidence. As a senior player, the way he carried me along - I needed a bit of confidence - [felt good]. When you play a match on comeback, it feels like the first time. Babar gave me confidence and Allah takes care of me."
Post lunch too, Sarfaraz used his feet and the sweep expertly - like he used to back in the day. Fifty of his 86 runs came square or the wicket or behind it. His approach was in sharp contrast to that of Babar who scored 127 of his 161 runs in front of the wicket.
Once the early morning moisture and juice in the pitch disappeared, Sarfaraz even dared to drive away from the body. He often shimmied across off stump to bring wide deliveries into his hitting arc. This nifty footwork continued to mess with the lines - and heads - of New Zealand's bowlers, especially their legspinner.
When Ish Sodhi darted one shorter and wider, Sarfaraz delayed his cut and chopped him away past the wicketkeeper to pick up the two runs he needed to raise his bat in front of his home crowd for the first time in Test cricket.
Neil Wagner, who had bowled just one over in the morning session, came back and bowled straight lines from over the wicket with a 7-2 leg-side field, but Sarfaraz was still proactive enough to flit around the crease to pick gaps on both sides of the pitch. However, after having hurt his knee while diving to the non-striker's end in the 61st over, Sarfaraz had to veer away from his strengths - footwork and sweep - and instead trust his defence even further.
There was a moment though, when Ajaz was drafted back into the attack, that he chanced his arm and spliced a sweep just over Tom Latham at short fine leg. Sarfaraz admonished himself for the miscue, thumping his bat on his pad. And then not long after that, he was dismissed; caught at slip for 86 off 153.
Sarfaraz was distraught at not getting to the century, which was well within his reach, and ultimately dragged himself off the field. In time though, he'll come around to see this innings as more than a statistic. It was reward for his grind in domestic cricket and his determination to keep pushing for a national comeback. Since being out of the Pakistan Test side in January 2019, Sarfaraz had piled up 968 runs in 19 games for Sindh at an average of 44 in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, Pakistan's premier first-class competition.
"Whenever a player plays, the effort is in order to play for Pakistan," Sarfaraz said. "But the last four years were a bit tough but I backed myself. I was around good people and my aim was always to play cricket and not pay attention to other things. Allah gave me the chance I was waiting for and I tried to make the most of it. Hoping for more such opportunities."
Almost eight years ago in the 2015 ODI World Cup in Auckland Sarfaraz rocked up from the sidelines and made a run-a-ball 49 as an opener to go with six catches against South Africa. That performance transformed his career. Will his latest comeback give his career a second wind?

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo