Virat Kohli and Sarfaraz Ahmad
Virat Kohli and Sarfaraz Ahmad. Image Credit: AP and AFP

Dubai: I feel for Sarfaraz Ahmad. Every time Pakistan loses, he’s pilloried. The media and Pakistan supporters are quick to heap blame on the captain. But cricket is a team game. A game where the captain’s tactical nous is critical. That is why Sarfaraz’s captaincy is always under the scanner.

Captaining Pakistan or India is a high-pressure job. The passions are so high that they say a prime minister’s job is easier. Virat Kohli will agree. The Indian captain is arguably the best batsman today, but his tactics, stroke selection and batting pace are minutely analysed after each game. Even when Indian wins.

Kohli and Sarfaraz are only too aware of the intense scrutiny. When Pakistan lost their opening fixture in the Cricket World Cup 2019, Sarfaraz was criticised severely: his bowling changes, his field placings, his batting and even his fitness. But Pakistan bounced back to defeat England, the tournament favourites. They ran Australia close; Pakistan could have won.

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The Pakistan captain deserves full credit for hauling the team from the dumps of an embarrassing defeat against the West Indies. The avalanche of criticism that followed after that loss unfairly targeted Sarfaraz. It was the batmen who lost the game for Pakistan. Yes, Sarfaraz missed a few tricks. It’s always worth a gamble when you defend a small total. He could have opened the bowling with Sadab Khan. On another occasion, when Wahab Riaz was beating the outside edge regularly, a slip would have helped. There is no guarantee these ploys would have worked. But then a captain has to think on his feet.

Kohli hasn’t yet faced such rigorous examination. With tough wins against South Africa and Australia, the Indian captain’s stock has soared. Even his batting shone brightly against Australia, though there was some mild criticism on how he paced his innings. But listen to his post-match press conference: Kohli and the team were very clear in how they wanted to construct the innings. And when it works so well, all the criticisms go out of the window.

As captains, Kohli and Sarfaraz are a study in contrast. The Pakistani skipper is quieter, although he keeps exhorting his players from behind the stumps. Kohli is very much in your face. He doesn’t tolerate mistakes. Even a minor misfielding or a perceived lack of effort would be met with a withering glare. A glare that reminds us of former Pakistan captain Imran Khan.

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Sarfaraz is not an inspirational leader like Imran, nor a shrewd tactician like Javed Miandad. At times, there might be tactical shortcomings. He does get advice and tactical support from senior players. But Mohammed Haneef tends to rearrange the field. That’s not a good sign. There should be only one captain on the pitch. Haneef can always pass on his advice to Sarfaraz.

Kohli wouldn't tolerate such interference. He’s the boss. He calls the shots. That’s unmistakable. But that hasn’t prevented him from seeking the advice of former captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni or Rohit Sharma – both superb tacticians. And it has worked well.

When Pakistan and India face off Sunday, Safaraz and Kohli will be the cynosure of all eyes. The clash of archrivals piles additional pressure on the skippers. It’s a match no one wants to lose. Pity the losing captain!