Sarfaraz Khan was weeping.
Not the sort of tears he'd shed on making a century in the Ranji Trophy final in Bengaluru. Those were fleeting - and he got back to the job of scoring runs.
This was at the end of the second day’s play on June 23. Long after Sarfaraz’s 134 had lifted Mumbai's score to 374. When he was being asked about his second consecutive monster season.
He had been in good spirits as he reflected on the 12 games have brought him 1,786 runs. Then he thought of his abbu, and the tears came.
“The credit goes to abbu,” Sarfaraz said in a choking voice. “If he wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have been anything. I sometimes think about what if he wasn’t there, and…”
The tears flowed more freely.
“He (abbu) has struggled a lot. But he never left my side. That’s why, when I think of it also,” said Sarfaraz – there was another catch in his voice.
Abbu is Naushad Khan, who has dedicated his life to making successful cricketers out of his sons: Sarfaraz, 24, is already setting the scene on fire in domestic cricket; Musheer, 17, is also making waves in age-group cricket and is in Mumbai’s Ranji squad, watching his older brother tear bowlers to shreds from the dressing room.
Naushad had given up his job to devote more time to his sons’ development. And Sarfaraz was old enough to see the struggle first-hand.“I had a job in Railways, he saw me leave that job. I had a store and I shut that, so that I could focus on coaching him,” Naushad said. “He has seen those days, of his abbu going in the rain to sell track pants near the station so that some extra money could be earned, which was needed to buy bats, balls, cricket equipment. From their diet to managing them, to ferrying them to and fro – I’m driver also, mentor also, coach also, father also.”
Minutes before his emotions overcame him, Sarfaraz had been smiling and joking with the press pack who had waited patiently to speak to him after his century.
His thigh-slapping celebration on reaching the landmark was a tribute to recently deceased rapper Sidhu Moosewala, whose music Sarfaraz enjoys listening to.
“I did it last time too when I got 153 (in the quarterfinal against Uttarakhand), but Hotstar’s camera didn’t linger long enough,” he said, eliciting laughter that he joined in. “Everyone was telling me, it wasn’t shown, but I said, ‘No worries, another opportunity will come’.”It’s not surprising to see Sarfaraz laugh; his cricketing feats apart, he has a natural energy that also lifts those around him.
It wasn't surprising to see Sarfaraz Khan smashing the ball at the Ranji final either. Indeed he hasn’t stopped smashing it since before the pandemic.
Having begun with Mumbai, he shifted base to Uttar Pradesh – abbu Naushad made the decision, of course – but quickly realised he was happier at Mumbai. That meant serving a mandatory cooling off period before he was eligible to play for his original team, and Sarfaraz got his chance midway through the 2019-20.
His scores in that season were: 8, 71*, 36, 301*, 226*, 78, 25, 177 and 6. Covid struck at seemingly the most inopportune time for Sarfaraz, who had built terrific momentum. When the Ranji Trophy was held again after a year’s break, though, it was as if he had never stopped. In the 2021-22 season so far, he's put 275, 63, 48, 165, 153, 40, 59* and 134 runs on the board.
The 134 in the final was his eighth century in first-class cricket since his debut in 2014-15, and it was the first time he had gone past a century and made less than 150.
Batting at No.5, he often has to score with the tail, or accelerate for a declaration, or rebuild if there are early wickets. That he’s still scored the mountain of runs he has is remarkable.This knock too, ended only because he had to farm the strike considerably with the tail and do the scoring. Mumbai were 248 for 6, and of the 126 runs that were added, Sarfaraz scored 94.
Between his tour de force Ranji final century and his candid conversations with journalists, Sarfaraz had a rather more interesting discussion. This was with Sunil Joshi in the middle of the Chinnaswamy playing field, after stumps had been drawn. Joshi, the former India spinner, is now one of the national selectors.
While they were chatting, two more selectors – Debasish Mohanty and Harvinder Singh – came by to offer encouraging words.
"I told him that he was doing well, and to continue. And concentrate on fitness too," said one of the selectors who didn't want to be named.
“It was the first time I was talking to Sunil Joshi sir,” Sarfaraz would say later. “He just told me that the opposition planned well, but I still countered it. They had blocked my sweep (with fielders out), but I know when I can play it and when I shouldn’t. Without playing the sweep, I got to such a big score. I showed patience. That’s what he said, that despite them blocking that shot, I was taking singles nicely and didn’t come under pressure and do something different.”
It's hardly surprising that the national selectors are taking an interest in Sarfaraz. His monster performances – unaffected by the pandemic break – have merited that attention. But, as he’s been taught by his abbu, Sarfaraz has only one focus when he’s out in the middle.
“When I’m batting, the crowd being there or not or whether it’s a ‘live’ match or not, doesn’t matter,” he said. “Once I’m in the middle, I’m in that zone. As far as the Indian team goes, I’m only thinking that whatever hard work abbu has done, I need to score runs. Everyone has dreams, and gradually my dreams are being fulfilled. If it’s in my destiny… I’ll do whatever is in my hands, the rest is in Allah’s hands.”What is in Sarfaraz’s hands is his bat, and for the past couple of years, it’s been hammering on the door to Indian selection, destiny or not.