Long Read: What did Sarfaraz Ahmed feel when he was out of the Pakistan team for four years? The story of his remarkable comeback.

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Sarfaraz Ahmed was in the team bus with Moin Khan and Nadeem Omar, the owner of Quetta Gladiators, when news filtered in that he was demoted from central contracts early last year. In late 2019, he had already been sacked as the Test captain, and dropped from all teams.

Nadeem Omar, the godfather of Pakistan cricket in many ways given he owns numerous cricket clubs that have reportedly provided 113 first-class cricketers to Pakistan, asked Sarfaraz: “Saifi, kya hua? (What happened, don’t look so down)”. Omar recalls the moment on the bus as the lowest he saw Sarfaraz.

“Saifi said, ‘bhai, I have captained all three formats, done decently well, have won a few Cups, so I am not concerned about that but to be dropped from all teams and treated like this does hurt. Don’t worry but bhai, I will be fine’.

“It’s easy thing to say, of course. Remember the heights he had reached. He was a national hero after being the captain who defeated India and won the Champions Trophy. Thousands flocked to his home for days. It would not have been easy for him to adjust from that high to the lows – but he did.”

The three men whom Sarfaraz considers his mentors were all around him that day on the bus. Omar, former Pakistan captain Moin Khan, who was Sarfraz’s idol and the reason why he turned from a seamer to a wicketkeeper when young, and Azam Khan, the grassroots coach on whose pillion Sarfaraz has hopped from ground to ground as a kid.

After he hit the match-saving hundred (“my best innings”) in the second innings against New Zealand, Sarfaraz would name and thank all the three well-wishers for their support. “I moved with people who gave me good guidance,” he would say.

Suddenly, even as he was talking about the tough phase, Omar laughs. “If that bus moment was the lowest, where I thought he was about to break down, the happiest moment for me was to see his celebration yesterday (Thursday). The way he punched the ground four times – it’s as if one punch for every year he was out of the team – four years, na? I even told him, ‘woh kya tha punches?’” Did Sarfaraz say it was for every year of wilderness? “Ha ha, he didn’t; just smiled. But it’s a good story, right; I shall tell him to say that in future!”

Where is Sarfaraz but, bhai? Whatsapp texts aren’t getting double ticks unless, of course, the number is invalid now. More laughter from Nadeem bhai. “Success is a strange thing ji. Those people who didn’t even enquire how he was during the four years have now come back. Chai pey aa jao, khaane pey aa jao (come for team, for dinner) chal raha hoga! That’s how our world is.

Pakistan’s Sarfaraz Ahmed performs Sajdah, a prayer bow in gratitude to God, after scoring century during the fifth day of the second test cricket match between Pakistan and New Zealand, in Karachi, Pakistan, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

“The best thing and most surprising is that all through these four years, even at his darkest moment, Saifi didn’t badmouth anyone. He really doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. I knew it, of course, but thought circumstances were like that; he might rant but he never did. He was down and I would see his anger occasionally on the field when he was captaining a club or PSL (Pakistan Super League) team, but he would never quite show it; it would fade out soon.”

There was a moment when even the calm, mature Omar got a bit emotional and told Sarfaraz about it too. “It was when I saw him carry drinks, run onto the field to tie shoelaces and such. I know there is nothing wrong with it, but across history how many former captains have we seen do all that? When I told him, “Saifi, kya hai yeh sab? Aur kisi ko bolna, (tell someone else), he said, “what is there bhai? There is nothing wrong; you only have said always respect this great game. All this is normal and being part of a team; I have no problem in doing it.”

There were other provocations for him to lose it but he didn’t, says Nadeem. The stripping of captaincy, the sacking from the teams and former PCB chief Rameez Raja even reportedly said that Sarfaraz’s tenure as a Pakistan player was all but over. There were also speculations that Babar Azam was closer to Mohammad Rizwan and wanted to move on. Did Sarfaraz ever comment about all that?

“Hmmm, not really; I did to him,” Omar says. “You see, obviously, self-doubts start to come in when you hear things like that. But with people around him telling the right things and deep inside he is a fierce fighter; he has bounced back. I just told him the selectors have the right not to pick him; it’s their opinion. But no one has any right to tell you your days as an international player are over. That’s your decision. You fight on; your family and friends, are with you and believe in you. You have captained all formats. You have won the Champions Trophy; no one can take all that from you. Now, since you love and respect this game; play for that. Rest is God’s will.”

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Pakistan’s Sarfaraz Ahmed reacts after scoring century during the fifth day of the second test cricket match between Pakistan and New Zealand, in Karachi, Pakistan, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

And the benevolence of humans. Omar admits many around him told him to drop Sarfaraz from the captaincy of Quetta Gladiators. “You know, not good for the brand image and all that. But I know him. His character, determination, fighting qualities, and selfless nature – you aren’t going to get a better captain than him. I think being the PSL captain did help him in the phase. All the players still call him ‘Kaptaan saab’, look up to him, and he was forced to look beyond himself, and continue to care and think for others. There wasn’t time to wallow in any self-pity, you understand? And with people like Moin Khan around him, he was always on his toes and knew what was expected of him.”

When he returned home in 2017 after the Champions Trophy to Buffer Zone, sandwiched between Karachi and North Nazimabad, his house was engulfed by fans — some hanging off parapets of neighbours’ walls and balconies, the window grills used as hanging points, as everyone jostled for a glimpse of the people’s star. When he waved his arms, people turned delirious.

The videos of the celebration went viral. In some, the entire neighbourhood was screaming out “Mauka Mauka”, the promo used by an Indian television channel that was deemed as a condescending taunt by Pakistan and Bangladesh cricket fans. Egged on, Sarfraz eventually repeated “mauka mauka” and the whole place went berserk. In another, he sang “Pakistan, Pakistan” — and the Mohalla turned intoxicatingly frenzied.

Salim Khaliq, sports editor with Express, an Urdu newspaper in Pakistan and who lives across the street from Sarfaraz, had told this newspaper then: “After Shahid Afridi, I’m seeing this public adulation — a special crazy sort of love — for the first time. There’ve been other big players like Misbah and Younis who have people’s respect, but only Afridi commanded such love. Now it’s Sarfraz. He is the biggest cricketing star right now.”

Then the blinds came down. “He still is a crowd favourite,” Omar says. “On the last day of the Test against New Zealand, once they realised that their Saifi was close to a hundred and can possibly even pull off a great win, they started to come into the stadium. There was hardly anyone at the start but once they realised what was happening, they came in. It was good to see him get to that hundred with many people in the stadium.”

Later, a reporter would egg him on about captaincy, telling him how in the 20 minutes he captained in the second Test in the absence of Babar Azam, the team looked different. Was he ready to take over? Sarfaraz leaned forward to stress clearly: “Babar Azam is the captain now and until he is the captain, we should all support him.”

“Our Kaptaan saab knows what lack of trust and lack of support feels like,” Omar says. “Saifi will never do anything to harm Pakistan cricket or any team he is part of. Ever.”


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