Sarfaraz Khan: An Azad Maidan wunderkind comes of age
Sarfaraz Khan is no stranger to doing big things. Khan had scored a total of 605 runs in three innings but it was not enough as Mumbai made their Ranji Trophy exit.Updated: Feb 09, 2020, 08:44 IST
Ranji Trophy’s most successful team has endured a poor season, failing to reach even the quarterfinals. Yet, as Mumbai always seem to do, they’ve had at least one player do monumental things through the course of their curtailed season.
Sarfaraz Khan is no stranger to doing big things. When he was 12, he broke a Mumbai schools record, scoring 439 in the famed Harris Shield. At 17, he had played his first IPL game for Virat Kohli’s RCB. But Khan was not happy. He needed to prove himself in red-ball cricket, and not just be known as the man who plays daring scoops and upper cuts in the IPL.
On January 22, Khan changed that perception with some room to spare, scoring a triple-hundred for Mumbai against Uttar Pradesh, his previous team. With that, the 22-year-old leapt into elite company—Vijay Merchant, Ajit Wadekar, Sunil Gavaskar, Sanjay Manjrekar, Wasim Jaffer and Rohit Sharma—the only other players to have scored triple tons for Mumbai.
Khan followed it up with an unbeaten double-hundred against Himachal Pradesh on a testing Dharamshala track. With Mumbai in need of an outright win in Rajkot against Saurashtra, Khan top-scored with 78.
It was not enough, but Khan had scored a total of 605 runs in three innings as Mumbai made their Ranji exit.
The seeds of the triple hundred were sown in the previous knock against Karnataka.
“In my mind I had made 300 when I scored that 71 against Karnataka,” Khan said. “The wicket was tough, the ball was swinging and we had lost all our senior players. I felt, if they can’t get me out for a full day in these conditions, then I can achieve something.”
Khan has always had the stomach for a fight. He had stood against the ruins with a 51 not out in the 2016 U19 World Cup final, which India lost to West Indies; a tournament in which he was also India’s leading run-scorer.
Khan had also fostered a burning desire to score a hundred for Mumbai. He had scored a 150 for Uttar Pradesh earlier, but “Mumbai se feeling judi hui thi”.
“I have been on the Mumbai cricket circuit for quite some time, been in and out a lot,” he said. “I had an aim in life that I wanted to feel what it was like to score a hundred for Mumbai.”
Khan’s connection with Mumbai cricket is as deep as it gets—he grew up learning the game at the iconic—and overcrowded—pitches of Azad Maidan. In the city’s cricketing circles, he is better known as the son of Naushad Khan, a coach at Azad Maidan who is credited with discovering four cricketers—including Khan—who have gone on to play the IPL.
Khan and his father have a near-fanatical approach to training.
“Nothing comes without hard work. We have a 20-yard artificial turf in our colony compound where we bowl to him (Khan) with eighteen yards,” said Naushad. “We do match simulation in open nets at Azad Maidan. If the next match is at Chennai, we practice on slow wickets and turning tracks. If the next match is in Himachal Pradesh, we will only practice against swing. If the wicket is an unknown quantity, we practice both.”
This, of course, is over and above the Mumbai team’s official practice sessions.
When Khan was on a hundred-plus score overnight, en route to his triple, the Mumbai team management asked Naushad to give his son a pep talk so he continues scoring the next day. Naushad said that there was a time when Khan would score a fifty and just not care enough to build on it.
“He would not take responsibility. He would be over-attacking,” Naushad said. “In the U19 World Cup in 2016, he had so many fifties…but should have scored at least four tons. He knows the value of his wicket now.”
It was last year, when Khan was serving a cooling-off period (he had joined the UP team for a season, and then come back to Mumbai) that he built his appetite for long, patient innings-building, playing in club tournaments outside the city.
“He practices even more now. After the 300 against UP and 200 against HP, the first thing he asked me was, if I thought he had paced his innings right,” Naushad said. “We were discussing his dismissal against Saurashtra on 78, and he insisted that he didn’t throw it away, but the ball had kept low.”
Learning to duck
To trace how the young batsman has developed his game, Naushad talked about how Khan had a weakness against the short ball that was not technical.
“He had never been a bad player against the short ball, but he did not have the patience to leave the ball alone,” he said. I remember he was playing one match for UP against Mumbai at Wankhede and Shardul Thakur bounced him consistently. He played upper-cuts, scoops and all the shots he knew in his 40-odd. Eventually he was dismissed. The Sarfaraz of today would not do that.”
It was the result of long sessions at the nets simply learning how to duck. If bouncers were thrown at him, he had to clear his legs and move his body out of the way—whether by ducking, swaying, or kneeling down.
“During the triple hundred, there was a 5-6 over spell from UP’s Ankit Rajput where he would bowl four bouncers in an over, with deep square leg , deep point, deep fine leg all behind,” Naushad said. “Sarfaraz would play out the yorker and only go after the over-pitched ball. For the rest, he kept ducking.”
It’s been a decade since Khan struck the schools record that first brought the spotlight on him. After nearly 750 runs in five Ranji trophy matches, in what appears like his breakthrough domestic season, Khan is now creating his own space in the hallowed Mumbai dressing-room.
“Inside the dressing room too, to create your identity, you have to do something special,” Khan said. “It feels good, and I hope Mumbai cricket will back me now and I will be able to win more games.”
As for the scoops, upper-cuts and reverse sweeps, he will continue to use them judiciously. “They are my speciality. I’ve worked hard on them under the hot sun in maidans. Woh line hai naa film ‘Chandnichowk to China’ main, ‘tere pass woh move hai jo tu hazaaron baar use kar chuka hai’.
“I have worked on these shots thousands of time with my father,” he said. “But now, I go in saying that if I have to get out, it should be to a good ball.”