Feature

Sarfraz Ahmed: The Pakistan captain who's yet to take the lead

He was widely credited for his role in the Champions Trophy win, but Pakistan's wicketkeeper has struggled to make his mark on the Test team

Pakistan's captain, Sarfraz Ahmed  •  Getty Images

Pakistan's captain, Sarfraz Ahmed  •  Getty Images

Eleven months ago, Sarfraz Ahmed stood on the balcony of his house in North Karachi and we caught a passing glimpse of that which he is waiting to become. A small part of a big city - his constituency let's call it - was massed below him on the street, rapt and united in adulation and celebration.
Sarfraz has lived in that same house his entire life. The area is known as Buffer Zone (don't ask). There were neighbours in that crowd and people who had known him and seen him grow up who may have realised at some point that he was special but who, until then, may not have realised quite how apart from them he could become.
Somebody in the crowd started singing 'Mauka Mauka' and Sarfraz eventually joined in this exquisite trolling of the trope of India's dominance of Pakistan. Let's agree that he'll never be a dancer but in playing along, he gave this charged, jubilant scene the definition it had been seeking: a leader among his people, as one of them, but also apart from them.
Today, a day on from his 31st birthday, a week on from the worst Test he has had personally, a day before the biggest examination of his fledgling Test captaincy, he is Pakistan's undisputed captain but is still waiting to become their leader.
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Nobody really knows what makes the perfect captain and if they tell you they do, don't buy it. The one thing we do know - and in the case of Pakistan, the foremost prerequisite - is that, without performing himself, a captain is as pointless as a celebrity without an Insta account. Runs are what established Misbah. The example that Imran set is what made his side great. And runs are what smoothed the prickliness of Miandad.
If it used to be complicated for wicketkeeper-captains, it isn't anymore: they need to score runs like anyone else. Sarfraz knows it because, until he became captain, he was scoring runs. And they weren't just runs - they were crisis runs, mood-shifting runs, runs for fun.
On the 2016 tour to England, in fact, there were a handful of Test 40s considerably more significant than just their sum. And he bossed the ODI series. Those were the peak years, from the start of 2014 and his hand in the Sharjah chase, to the lost-cause fifties in Australia at the end of 2016.
The batting hasn't hurtled off a cliff since, but it has begun to trek down it. There was that fifty against Sri Lanka in the Champions Trophy on which the tournament turned (albeit he was helped on his way by Thisara Perera and his missed sitter at mid-on). The hand-eye coordination that can make his offside game so thrilling is now occasionally revealing the risks that make it appear wafty. The urgency that was so vibrant has, a couple of times already, looked hasty.
And then there's the noose by which all wicketkeepers eventually hang. So deep are the scars of Kamran Akmal upon Pakistan that for a long time, anyone who could identify which gloves go on which hand was a good keeper. But we're reaching a moment in Sarfraz's wicketkeeping - and actually we've been here for a while. According to ESPNcricinfo's records, Sarfraz has missed at least 19 chances in 26 Tests since the start of 2015. He's dropped or missed 11 catches out of a total of 93 opportunities, but more damningly, has missed eight stumpings out of 19 that have come his way. All in all, that means he is missing roughly one in every six chances. Those are not figures to sweep away easily.
Carry on like this for a while and it starts building up into a fair old storm. Everything gets sucked into it, like the constant haranguing of players. Some days, such as the third T20 in New Zealand earlier this year when he was shouting at Mohammad Amir to stop appealing and just pick the damn ball up to prevent a single, it's okay. That is the alertness to match situations that is intrinsic to Sarfraz's game.
Other days, such as when he ran up to lecture Hasan Ali on his way back to the bowling mark only to be, apparently, ignored, it is OCD micromanagement. And the berating of fielders for poor throws ... it's not a great look if he's dropping chances himself.
Eventually the whispers about his fitness might gather the strength to become actual criticism. He is passing those fitness tests and working hard, no question. But he doesn't look like the poster boy for the no-prisoners-taken fitness regime they're trying to implement. And as the captain, you'd think he should be the poster boy.
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The thing is, whether the PCB intended it as such or not, Sarfraz has been a captain-in-waiting for years. He's the closest the board has come to grooming a captain from an early age. Sure, there have been bumps along the way, but he was Under-19 captain just over a decade ago and he is now the national captain in all three formats. That is as straight a line of leadership development as you'll find in Pakistan cricket.
And there's no questioning that, under his command, Pakistan's white-ball sides have, at the very least, halted an alarming slide and, at the most, turned into a modern outfit. And no matter how he can be with his players on the field, from a distance it does appear as if he has pulled off that other great captaincy trick - of appearing to be one of the boys while at the same time not.
There's a tale from that Champions Trophy win with which to finish. After the opening defeat to India and heading into their next training session at Edgbaston, Pakistan sat down in the dressing room for a bit of soul-searching. Words were needed - tough, unsparing words. Mickey Arthur had been dishing them out thus far but he now needed it to come from the players. The player who got up to kick that verbal ass? Shoaib Malik.
Or, to put it more relevantly, not Sarfraz: the captain no question, but a leader in waiting.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo