Sarfaraz Ahmed sacked as Pakistan's Test and T20I captain
Pakistan's customary post-World Cup clearout is complete after the PCB sacked Sarfaraz Ahmed as the Test and T20I captain ahead of the November-December tour of Australia. To add to his woes, Sarfaraz has also been dropped from both the teams following a run of poor form in the two formats. In his place, Azhar Ali has been named the Test captain and Babar Azam leader of the T20I side. A decision on the ODI captaincy has been put on hold, as Pakistan's next 50-over assignment isn't until July next year - logic would suggest it is highly unlikely Sarfaraz will retain that captaincy either.
Sarfaraz's removal means Pakistan now have a new coach, new chief selector and new captains after the 50-over World Cup, where they narrowly failed to reach the semi-finals; Mickey Arthur and Inzamam-ul-Haq are long gone as head coach and selection head, Misbah-ul-Haq having taken over both positions. Azhar, whom Sarfaraz replaced as the white-ball captain in 2016, has been appointed Test captain for the 2019-20 World Test Championship matches, which begin with a two-Test series in Australia next month. Babar will be in charge of the T20I side till at least the men's T20 World Cup in Australia late next year.
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The case for Sarfaraz's dismissal had been building steadily for a while now, predicated as much on his own form as Pakistan's results under him. Just last week he had stood down from leading Sindh in the National T20 Cup, though continued playing for the side. But he has overseen a dismal run for the Test side, currently at No. 7 in the rankings. In their most recent Test series, they were swept 3-0 in South Africa in December-January, and, prior to that, had lost a three-Test series in the UAE 2-1 to New Zealand - that was a second loss in three Test series (including one to Sri Lanka the season before) in the UAE, as near a fortress as Pakistan had until Sarfaraz took over the captaincy.
It is the decision to remove him from captaincy in the shortest format that will hurt Sarfaraz the most. Although they suffered an embarrassing 3-0 defeat at home earlier this month in Lahore at the hands of a Sri Lanka side without a number of their top players, Sarfaraz's captaincy has led Pakistan to be the leading national side in the world in the format.
Results this year have been poor, but their run since the disastrous showing at the 2016 World T20 - after which Sarfaraz took over - had been outstanding. And the loss to Sri Lanka had as much the imprint of Misbah on it, with his selections for the series, as any other player - indeed it is believed Sarfaraz was not happy with Misbah's decision to recall Ahmed Shehzad and Umar Akmal to a side that didn't need such drastic selections.
But it hasn't helped that Sarfaraz's form has been poor across all formats. He hasn't made a Test century in five years and in his most recent Test assignments in South Africa, he made three ducks in six innings. Since the day he scored an unbeaten 61 to get Pakistan through to the 2017 Champions Trophy semi-final, Sarfaraz has led Pakistan in 44 ODIs, averaging less than 29 - and that includes 18 games in which he has not batted or finished unbeaten for under 15. In a further 12, he's managed fewer than 15 runs, and scored just three fifties. His productivity in T20Is has been much the same post-captaincy; if his average was slightly down (26.6 from 28) his strike rate was up (134 from 126 previously).
Ehsan Mani, the PCB chairman, acknowledged the decision to sack Sarfaraz from the two formats had been a "difficult" one. ESPNcricinfo understands Sarfaraz was given the option to resign and announce it in a press conference, but he chose not to.
"It has been a difficult decision to drop Sarfaraz Ahmed, who has performed well as a player and a leader," Mani said in a statement. "But, his loss in form and confidence is visible and, in the best interest of the team, it has been decided to leave him out and provide him the opportunity to reflect and regroup himself and try to reclaim his form away from international cricket.
"Sarfaraz Ahmed's contributions are second to none and being the gutsy cricketer and fighter that we all know he is, I have no doubts he will be back in Pakistan colours at some stage."
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Pakistan did win five of their nine games at the 50-over World Cup in England and Wales this year, and only failed to qualify for the knockouts because of New Zealand's superior net run-rate, and have since beaten Sri Lanka 2-0 in a three-ODI series in Karachi, results that have helped Sarfaraz hold on to the job in the format.
"It has been an honour to lead Pakistan at the highest level. I want to thank all my colleagues, coaches and selectors who have helped me in this journey. My good wishes are with Azhar Ali, Babar Azam and the Pakistan cricket team, and I hope they will continue to grow stronger and stronger," Sarfaraz said.
Azhar is not a surprising choice, given his status as the team's most reliable Test batsman, although there had been talk about Shan Masood as a potential option. But Azhar is a safe appointment, now 73 Tests old and in good domestic form: he is second on the list of highest run-getters in the ongoing Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. He also had an immensely successful series in Australia the last time Pakistan toured in 2016-17, his 406 runs in the three Tests including an MCG double hundred.
"There is no bigger honour than to captain the Pakistan national cricket team in the pinnacle format of the game," Azhar said. "I feel humbled, excited and privileged, and with the support of the team, look forward to justifying the faith that has been entrusted upon me for the World Test Championship.
"I am not only targeting wins, but also aim to provide opportunities to players to grow in stature and express themselves so that Pakistan cricket can resume its journey to the top."
Babar, meanwhile, also has a tough job in his hands despite being handed the reins of the No. 1 side in T20Is - he is the No. 1 batsman in the world in the format too - but he called the elevation "the biggest thing" to have happened in his career.
"To be named captain of the No. 1-ranked side in the world is the biggest thing that has happened to my career to date," he said. "I am ready for this challenge and also willing to learn more in the process. I feel it has been a natural progression for me and I am delighted that the PCB has put faith in my capabilities."