The platform was set, and so was the stage.
When 18-year-old Sarfaraz Khan walked out to bat in the 18th over of the Royal Challengers Bangalore innings, his predecessors at the crease, Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers had already laid the foundations for something special.
Within a small matter of ten deliveries, Khan would light up Bengaluru’s Chinnaswamy Stadium, with an incredible, crafty display of batsmanship. Khan’s unbeaten 35 would propel the Bengaluru franchise to a daunting total of 226 against the Sunrisers Hyderabad.
It was a brief innings all right, but what stood out was Khan’s panoramic range of shots, or what in modern-day cricket is termed “360-degree” batting, with a slight preference for the mostly open field behind the wicket.
Khan would play sweep shots off a fast bowler searching for the yorker, a reverse ramp shot over third man, outsmarting the same bowler who tried going wide with his yorker, and on the occasions he chose to play in front of the wicket, powerful drives through and over the extra-cover boundary on the off-side.
It was audacious batting at its very best, but that’s the Sarfaraz Khan story.
Khan, for those connected to Mumbai cricket, was always a prodigy and a star in the making. His performances in his formative years often saw glowing endorsements from some of the city’s former cricketers, including those who went on to represent the country with much distinction. One such knock came in 2009, when a 12-year-old Sarfaraz broke the Harris Shield record with a marathon effort of 439 not out. He was representing Rizvi Springfield, where he studied upto the ninth grade.
Khan’s story is not your typical Mumbai cricket story, born, groomed and carefully nurtured in its hallowed nerve-centre Shivaji Park. It begins at the Azad Maidan in the heart of the part of Mumbai, popularly known as “town”, where in his formative years, he would play most of his cricket, while his father Naushad would hop over to the nearby ‘Fashion Street’ and sell tracksuits and caps in a stall. It was his routine for nearly a decade, just to get Sarfaraz to play cricket.
“Those days were particularly difficult for us,” says Naushad. “I would take Sarfaraz for practice and during the time he played the match, I would sell track pants, taxi bhi chalaya hai (I have also driven a taxi). Cricket doesn’t come cheap in a city like Mumbai. And for some of us middle-class people, we have to do other things to take care of our families.”
Naushad Khan, for those unfamiliar with him, is a popular coach in the Mumbai maidan circuit. For some, he is an institution, with his single-minded intention to mould young cricketers deprived of opportunities elsewhere. Naushad would play mentor to young cricketers from his native Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, whom he’d bring to Mumbai, give them shelter and hand them opportunities to further their fledgling careers. Two of his well-known wards include Mumbai all-rounder Iqbal Abdullah and opener Jay Bista.
Sarfaraz is a very un-Mumbai cricketer in many ways, unbridled by the city’s enduring obsession with technical correctness, where a high elbow or an upright stance, was of more worth than a lofted shot that fetched more runs. Back in the day, shots played with a horizontal bat were considered blasphemous.
The sweep, they would often say, was best left to people with a broom and not a bat in hand. That has since changed considerably, but even today in most maidans, orthodoxy is still the guiding philosophy.
“He was always an exceptional talent since his schoolboy days, gifted with shotmaking abilities,” says Milind Rege, former Mumbai captain and currently the chairman of its selection committee. “He is also a very hard working cricketer. His father Naushad has taken a lot out of him and the results are showing. But equally, what stands out about Sarfaraz, is his temperament, again due to his father. Naushad has steeled him. You can see that with his batting, both at the IPL level and the India Under-19 level.”
If school cricket was the stage Sarfaraz announced himself on, it was in age-group cricket where he would enhance his reputation as a batsman of the future. Khan represented the India Under-19s for the first time in 2013, a call-up that came on the back of his performances for the Mumbai Under-19s in the Vinoo Mankad Trophy. In the Under-19 World Cup in February 2014, Sarfaraz was India’s second-highest run-getter, with a knock of 74 against Pakistan being his standout performance.
India got knocked out in the quarter-finals that year, but a week after the tournament, Khan made his senior-team debut for Mumbai in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy against Saurashtra, where he made an unbeaten 11-ball 17.
Later that year, aged just 17, Sarfaraz Khan made his Ranji Trophy debut for Mumbai at the Eden Gardens.
One fifty and two matches later, Sarfaraz was dropped.
“He should have gotten more chances to prove himself, but it wasn’t to be. Young player kaise perform karega? Kandhe pe haath deneka, usko bolneka ki bharosa hai, opportunity deneka,” says Naushad. “Jab tak aap player ko chance nahin doge, kaise dikhayega woh? (How will a young player perform if they don’t put an arm around his shoulder, they should trust him and give him an opportunity. Unless you give him a chance, how will he show his worth?)”
The big stage
The axe from the Mumbai squad, didn’t quite go down well with Sarfaraz or his father. However, in the IPL auctions last year, he was bagged by the Royal Challengers for Rs.50 lakh.
Sarfaraz made his debut against the now-suspended Chennai Super Kings at the Chinnaswamy last year, and in the process became the youngest cricketer to play in the twenty20 tournament at the age of 17. His stint at the crease was rather short, seven balls to be precise, but the glimpses were there. It was in his fourth match in RCB colours that Sarfaraz would showcase his potential.
His unbeaten 45 off 21 balls was one hell of a display, where he treated international bowlers like James Faulkner and Shane Watson with utter disdain. That day, Khan swept and paddled with utmost confidence, and equally demonstrated exceptional footwork against spin. It was also on that day, that Sarfaraz earned his captain Virat Kohli’s respect, prompting him to say, “Haanji, kya baat hai ji” as the young man made his way back.
His next big moment would come in the qualifier against the CSK, where Sarfaraz’s 21-ball 31 saw a lot of shots played in front of the wicket. However, RCB would go on to lose the match, and exit the IPL. But Sarfaraz had arrived.
Move to UP
After a snub by the Mumbai selectors, Sarfaraz decided to move on to greener, yet familiar pastures. His decision to leave Mumbai and represent Uttar Pradesh would be debated and criticised in the Mumbai circles. His father insists he wasn’t bitter. “For us, it was about opportunities. Everyone has a right to progress in life. If we want to represent India, we have to play regularly in a BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) tournament. Uttar Pradesh gave us that opportunity. That’s all we asked for.”
Rege says, “I want to set the record straight that his father never approached me or whatever. I don’t know why he moved. But what I can tell you about the Mumbai dressing room is that it is filled with some exceptional cricketers. And today, given our squad and its young core, you have to keep performing. It is a dressing room where you’re always on your toes and cannot rest on your laurels.”
On his Ranji debut for UP against Madhya Pradesh at Moradabad, Sarfaraz scored 155 off 164 deliveries with 15 fours and 4 sixes. “People used to say, yeh paanch over ka batsman hai, T20 mein khel lega (People said he belongs only to the T20 arena). We had to constantly hear these things. But after that knock, he proved that he belongs at that level.”
There were news reports of an “attitude problem” soon after, something Naushad shoots down immediately. “He was injured and couldn’t play. You can ask Rahul Dravid (India U19 coach) how he fielded at the Challenger Trophy,” he says.
Sarfaraz played two more matches for UP in the Ranji Trophy, before linking up with Dravid in preparation for the Under-19 World Cup late last year. “That (under Dravid) was a very important phase,” says Naushad. “I didn’t interfere at all.”
Until then, Sarfaraz made his name in cricket as a purely attacking batsman. “He has learnt a lot under Dravid. How to build an innings, how to manage your crease in difficult situations, under pressure,” Naushad adds.
The results were showing.
In the Under-19 World Cup, which was held in Bangladesh this year, Sarfaraz scored 355 runs at an average of 71. He would end the tournament as India’s leading run-scorer in 2016 Under-19 World Cup (and second highest overall). In the final against the West Indies, which India heartbreakingly lost, Sarfaraz top-scored with 51, standing tall amidst the ruins.
“He had a chance to bat at number three in difficult situations, when early wickets were falling and on wickets in Bangladesh where it was very difficult to score.” It was here that he learnt to curb his instincts and remain calm in adverse situations and not panic.
Importantly, he listened to Dravid carefully. “If you see the final, the temperament with which he played, seeing through spells from the West Indies bowlers, knowing when to score and when to hold back, all these little things he picked up from his interactions with Dravid,” says Naushad.
There’s also a noticeable change his game. “Pichle World Cup aur abhi wala World Cup mein farak dekha hoga aapne (You might have seen the difference between the previous World Cup and now)” says Naushad. Even though he’s stockily built, he’s become a lot fitter. “Running between the wickets mein bahut improvement ho gaya hai abhi. Aage bhi mehnat karna hai. (Running between the wickets has seen a lot of improvement. He has to work harder)”
Effort is something Naushad keeps harping on, when it comes to Sarfaraz. He describes his routine as “Subah se shaam ko ground hi hai. Paanch baje uthta hai, aur shaam ko saade aath baje aata hai. Nau baje so jata hai. Bas Monday ka din poora sota hai. (He is on the field from morning to evening. He wakes up at 5, returns home by 8.30 and goes to bed by 9. On Monday, though, he sleeps through the day.)
“Aaj kal fitness ka bahut sochta hai. Diet ka. This is something he has picked up from Viratbhai. Usko toh team mein poori university hai, chahe AB de Villiers ho, ya (Chris) Gayle, ya Shane (Watson). (He is learning a lot about fitness and diet from Virat Kohli. His entire team is like a university, whether it’s AB de Villiers, Chris Gayle or Shane Watson.)”
The IPL has propelled the likes of Sarfaraz into instant stardom. In July last year, he signed a Rs.2 crore deal with Professional Management Group, owned by Indian legend Sunil Gavaskar.
What next? Naushad says they have stopped getting too ahead of themselves.
“These days, I don’t think a lot. Pehle planning kiya tha, lekin jab plan fail ho jata hai, tab dukh lagta hai,” he says. “Cricket present tense ka game hai. Selection aapke control mein nahin hai, opposition aapke control mein nahin hai, climate aapke control mein nahin hai, lekin sirf performance aur mehnat aapke control mein hai. (First, I used to plan. But when it fails, you feel really hurt. Cricket is a sport played in the present tense. Selection, opposition and climate are not in your control, only performance and hard work is.)”