From the outside, it’s easy to sometimes wonder what the fuss around Sarfaraz is. He is a solid batter, sure, who had a decent career, becoming a mainstay of Pakistan’s middle order across all formats. He never stood out as an outrageous talent but developed the smarts to survive and thrive. He replaced the listless Kamran Akmal behind the stumps when he made his debut, and for some, there was a lot of goodwill around that. But he is 35, his best years surely behind him, and in Mohammad Rizwan, Pakistan have a replacement.
But to evaluate Sarfaraz from the outside is to miss the point entirely. You simply don’t separate Sarfaraz the man from where he is at this point in his life and career, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
His accent, his demeanour, his loyalties and his views are quintessentially, unapologetically Karachiite – in a way no cricketer has perhaps been since Javed Miandad. Without all of that, you can’t discuss Sarfaraz, there’s a lot you will miss by way of context.
Why try, anyway?
Chants of “Saifi! Saifi!” broke out from the pockets of fans assembled at the National Stadium as he walked in to replace Babar Azam – the man who, in his own way, had replaced Sarfaraz in white-ball cricket for Pakistan. Pakistan were four down early into the first session on the final day, and within moments, Sarfaraz watched Shan Masood meekly surrender his wicket to Michael Bracewell.
For much of the past four years, Sarfaraz was running the drinks. Here, he had been asked to put out a fire. With more than two sessions left and a long tail to come, there wasn’t a hosepipe long enough to pull this off.
Sarfaraz had the air of a man always in search of the respect he felt he had earned, but never quite achieved. He thought becoming Pakistan’s No. 1 wicketkeeper a decade ago would get him there. Or maybe becoming captain in all three formats. Winning the Champions Trophy would surely seal it. Captaining his side to 11 successive T20I series wins and to the top spot in the rankings – that would certainly get him there, wouldn’t it?
But every time he closed in, he watched the goalpost shift, the boundaries of national respect gerrymandered, and he was kept out.
And so, on that quest, he set out yet again in this series against New Zealand, where he finally had his chance in this personal struggle. He scored three successive half-centuries, but it’s not the runs they talked about. Instead, he was reminded of the number of catches he had dropped, the stumpings he had missed. His counterpart, Tom Blundell, he was reminded, didn’t miss a chance all of 2022. And you know who they say is every bit as good as Blundell? It’s a Pakistani keeper, Saifi, but it’s not you.
That might be the talk outside, but the small Karachi crowd in the stadium has ringfenced Sarfaraz off from that conversation.
And he neutralised the morning menace both seam and spin posed with the signature counterattack that’s earned him his value throughout his career. He has hit Bracewell out of the attack, and first ball after lunch, he pulled Ish Sodhi behind square to speed along to 33 off 34. His partner, Saud Shakeel, spent three hours at the crease and face 146 balls without getting as many runs. Run-scoring was hard on this pitch, unless you had the knack Sarfaraz possesses to find pockets of space in the field and angles with his bat not visible to any of his team-mates.
It’s an onslaught now – Bracewell is smashed for a four and a six. Sarfaraz has breezed into the 90s, and, two away from three figures, finds that classic little nudge past cover to extract another couple. It’s perhaps appropriate it’s a two that gets him there; Sarfaraz has run a long way back and forth to end up exactly where he is now, and as the crowd gets to its feet, the man himself drops to his knees. He punches the ground six times, it’s more catharsis than celebration.
But this perpetually restless cricketer’s work is never quite done, and even today, it won’t be. Sarfaraz won’t be there to see his side through to the end, falling to Bracewell, of all people, 15 minutes before play ends. And he won’t be the man to get Pakistan the win he had set them up for; they will have to settle for a draw, a mere 15 runs – but with just one wicket in hand – away.
With Sarfaraz, there are always things just out of reach, always another job to do, a redemption arc to complete.
The press conference has to end sometime, but that’s by no means the end of Sarfaraz’s media interactions. As he begins to leave the room, a throng gathers around him. Sarfaraz takes turns to give many of the journalists a hug. Some are pulled into a deeper, more intimate embrace before he is accompanied to the adjacent hall where, hands quivering, he writes his name on the honours board, his son by his side. It’ll be up there soon in indelible gold ink. This is where Sarfaraz belongs: not just the honours board, not just this level, but also this city, where he’s as much son of the soil as he is royalty.
Whatever happens from here, he’ll always have this day in Karachi. And Karachi will be only too happy to tell everyone else that they’ll always have Sarfaraz Ahmed.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000