For those who have played local cricket in Mumbai, the sight of a young Sarfaraz Khan practicing at various maidans in the city was a fairly common one. From the age of seven, Khan, along with his father Naushad, would travel to different parts of the city to get as much practice and exposure.
Khan’s skill with the bat was undeniable from the get-go. He would face bowlers twice his age with minimum fuss, timing the ball to perfection despite his bat coming up to his waist. He had that wow factor about him. Just like his statemates Sachin Tendulkar and Rohit Sharma did before him, Khan’s talent left many speechless on Mumbai’s maidans.
“I didn’t attend any social gatherings as a kid, all my time was devoted to cricket and I wasn’t aware of what was happening in the outside world,” Khan told Scroll.in.
Back then, one couldn’t help but imagine Khan going a long way as a professional cricketer. And today, as one reflects on the recently-concluded Ranji Trophy season, there’s a sense of vindication that he has made it. The right-hander scored 928 runs in six matches this season, which included a triple-century followed by a double in consecutive innings. At 22, he’s one of the brightest talents India has at the moment.
However, a closer look at Khan’s progress makes one wonder if he, despite still being so young, has underachieved in his career so far.
Khan’s rise in age-group cricket was phenomenal. He first made a name for himself when he was 12 with a record knock of 439 in the Harris Shield inter-school tournament. Five years later, after scoring in heaps for Mumbai’s Under-16 and 19 sides, he broke into the Indian team for the Under-19 World Cup, where he notched-up 211 runs in six games at an average of 70.33. The following year, when he was 17, he became the youngest player to take part in the Indian Premier League after the Royal Challenger Bangalore bought him for Rs 50 lakh in the auction. The year after that, he played the Under-19 World Cup again and returned with 355 runs from six matches.
At that point, it seemed Khan’s career trajectory was just right. He had announced himself on the global stage and was making all the right noises. But just as it seemed he was ready to progress to the highest level, things took a turn for the worse.
The UP shift
Khan’s family comes from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. After making his Ranji Trophy debut for Mumbai in 2014, he was in-and-out of the side and that prompted his father to shift his base to UP in 2015-16 to find more opportunities. That, however, didn’t work out as they would have wanted. Khan spent two seasons with the UP team but didn’t get to play consistently.
“They [UP] thought I had become unfit and used injury as an excuse to not include me in their one-day team. This, despite me getting retained by RCB,” said Khan. While there is merit to Khan’s argument that he wasn’t far from his best with the bat at that time – he had a good Under-19 World Cup in 2016 after switching to UP – there were indeed serious question marks over his fitness.
Khan was dropped from the RCB team because of being unfit, with skipper Virat Kohli telling him to lose weight in order to survive at the highest level. Add to that, he was pegged back by injuries to his back and knee. A course correction was the need of the hour. “Growing up, I just focused on batting, bowling and fielding. My time with RCB made me realise the importance of fitness,” he said.
By 2018, Khan had come to the conclusion that he wasn’t going to progress if he continued to play in UP. He was convinced he needed to return to Mumbai, the place where it all started for him. “Whether or not to come back was a huge decision for me. I was adamant I wanted to play for Mumbai and was prepared to wait for however long it took to get a chance,” said.
And a long wait it was. Khan had to complete a one-year cooling off period after returning to Mumbai. By the start of 2019, he had started to get disillusioned with his future. Having achieved immense success at a young age, he had spent nearly three years in obscurity.
“I did get a bit frustrated at times. Just like everyone, even I would have quarrels with my family members. Cooling off periods are like a punishment but the rule is the same for everyone so I had to accept it. I feel I learned a lot about myself during that time,” he said.
Back to his best
Little did he know at that time that his roller-coaster of a career was about to take its next big turn. He was one of the leading run-scorers in the A division of the Kanga League – Mumbai’s premier club cricket tournament – and that, along with Shreyas Iyer and Shivam Dube elevation to the Indian team, opened up a spot for him in Mumbai’s Ranji Trophy side for the 2019-20 season.
What followed was a season that dreams are made of. Khan played 11 innings and registered scores of 8, 71*, 36, 301*, 226*, 78, 25, 177 and 6 at a strike-rate of nearly 80. He finished as the fifth-highest run-getter but was arguably the most impressive batsman in the season. In a disappointing season for Mumbai as a team, he proved to be the lone star.
“I worked very hard on playing fast bowling before the last season. We prepared a quick wicket near my house and I trained extensively against swing bowling. People think I’m just a white-ball player because they’ve seen me in the IPL, but I believe I’m better with the red ball. I didn’t expect to score these many runs, all I did was follow the processes,” he said.
Khan has the ability to accumulate runs at a brisk pace. Throughout the Ranji Trophy season, one of the big taking points was the low strike-rate of batsmen. But that wasn’t an issue when it came to Khan, who managed to consistently find gaps all around the park.
“I have played so much cricket in my life that I feel I understand things easily at the crease. I don’t feel any pressure. It’s like I’ve seen it all so many times before,” he said. “I feel I have one of the best techniques. Because I started playing so much from such a young age, that too against good quality bowlers, I have always been confident of what I have to do. I don’t get nervous as others do sometimes.”
Khan’s career seems to be on the upswing once again. Having said that, the fact remains that the likes of Prithvi Shaw, Shardul Thakur, Iyer and Dube, who burst onto the scene in Mumbai along with and even after him, have beaten him to the India cap. Does he feel a sense of competitiveness?
“They are doing very well but I don’t get bothered by that,” he said. “My thinking is very different. I watch, learn and focus on myself. Some players get to play for India at an early age and some make it later. I have played enough cricket to know that hard work does get rewarded. Getting everything quickly in life isn’t always a good thing. I feel I have experienced so much and overcome so many hardships that I will be a finished product if and when I make it to the top. I won’t look back then.”