Sarfraz Ahmed scored his 2nd ODI hundred vs England at Lord's
What is more menacing is how Sarfraz Ahmed is improving with time, and how ominous he has looked with time.

Azhar Ali opted to bat at Lord’s. Pakistan were 2 for 3 (no, not the other way round) within minutes. The top three were whisked out by the England new-ball bowlers in minutes. And, almost counter-intuitively, Azhar promoted Sarfraz Ahmed ahead of Shoaib Malik. Two decades back, in a World Cup semi-final at Eden Gardens, I was surprised to see Arjuna Ranatunga promote Roshan Mahanama ahead of himself. I asked myself the same question I had asked that day: should the calmer, more experienced, man not have been out there to bail his side out? FULL CRICKET SCORECARD: Pakistan vs England 2016, 2nd ODI at Lord’s

But Azhar Ali knew exactly what he was doing: he had sent out the finest brain in the Pakistan side out there. Sarfraz is aggressive, but seldom flashy, and has responded to better than almost any of his teammates. Not playing in whites means Pakistan are deprived of the reassuring presence of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, but then, they still have Sarfraz.

Things went exactly as per plan. Sarfraz had a couple of awkward moments against the new ball, though there was no chance offered. When Mark Wood bowled outside, Sarfraz drove him through cover. He ran his ones and twos. He was furious with himself when he flicked one past mid-wicket, assumed a boundary, and did not convert it into a three. The next ball was a ferociously pulled four, but that was not all: unwilling to leave anything to chance, Sarfraz ran as hard as possible nevertheless till the ball reached the ropes. ALSO READ: PAK vs ENG, 2nd ODI: Sarfraz reaches 2nd hundred

When you guide a ball at Liam Plunkett’s pace to deep third-man fence you do not run for the second, for you would be running to what they call “the danger-end,” but Sarfraz took the fielder on and made it. There was reason and confidence in that approach. The strokeplay was impressive, but it was controlled and calculated. He did not have the licence to cut loose. He had to build. At the same time, he had to score.

In other words, he had two options — those of counterattack and consolidation. If he chose the former he could not afford to lose his wicket. In the case of the other he could not allow the runs dry up. Sarfraz decided to play himself in, place everything in gaps, and run as hard as possible. His fifty took 61 balls, and included a mere three boundaries. He had lost Babar Azam, but he had the seniormost teammate out there by then. And when Malik fell, he found support in Imad Wasim.

This was his acid test. He was the senior partner. He was a natural strokeplayer. He could explode any moment, but he also had to ensure Pakistan batted it out. He had to take Pakistan to somewhere decent. England have been thoroughly professional in the previous ODI. There was no way they were letting this one go. Eoin Morgan marshalled his men well. The runs dried out. Sarfraz managed to keep those twos coming. Run hard, run very, very hard, do not let the pressure build up.

Sarfraz had predetermined a drive. He stepped out. Moeen dropped it short. And Sarfraz played the shot of the day. He reached out for it and realised it was not quite there. He used the bottom hand, a lot of it. The immensely powerful right wrist and forearm came into play. He did not even bother to play with the turn. He hit it straight over Moeen’s head, first-bounce, past the ropes.

The hundred was only a matter of time. He would loved to see it through, but this was the day when he had to be content with a 130-ball 105, not a 150. Though the last four men got a mere 12 among them, Imad was enough to biff Pakistan to 251. ALSO READ: Sarfraz’s hundred takes PAK to 252 in 2nd ODI vs ENG

Sarfraz averages 44 in Test cricket without almost anyone noticing. More importantly, he has got his runs at a strike rate of 73, which tells how dangerous a batsman he can be. These are splendid numbers. At SSC in 2013-14 Sarfraz had top-scored in each innings. A year later at Galle he turned a Test on its head inside a session. Two Tests later he scored another crucial 78 not out. At Dubai against New Zealand he had waltzed to a hundred.

Sarfraz has crossed fifty 10 times in Test cricket, every single time of which has come at over a strike rate of 50. In fact, from 44 innings he has scored at less than 50 only 6 times, all of which have been sub-15 scores. Indeed, he gets them fast, and he almost always succeeds. And often top-scores. But ODIs are different. A strike rate of 86 (combined with an average of 32) might have been acceptable a decade back, but not today. There is, however, more to gross career data.

Sample this bit of statistic.

 Sarfraz Ahmed’s ODI career split by batting position

Position

I

R

Ave

SR

1 – 5

19

703

43.94

81.5

6 or below

27

536

23.30

91.2

Career

46

1,239

31.77

100.0

To be precise, there are two avatars of Sarfraz the batsmen. When he has been used up the order (especially as non-opener), he has almost always walked out under pressure, and has played the long innings. The higher average bears testimony to that. On the other hand, the strike rate when he bats down the order tells about his average. But even that is not enough. What is more menacing is how Sarfraz is improving with time, and how ominous he has looked with time.

How often have you seen a man improve to such an extent over years, in terms of both average and strike rate? How often have you seen someone accelerate and rebuild with such consistency over years? Sarfraz’s ODI career numbers do not read staggering at this stage. But if the upward graph continues, it will take some effort to stop him in the long run.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)