He has lived up to his pandemic-proof tag and scaled so high that he now has the second-highest batting average — only after the great Don Bradman — among batters with more than 2,000 First-Class runs: 81.61.
Hours after being adjudged the Player of the Tournament in India’s premier First-Class tournament, the Ranji Trophy, Sarfaraz Khan is back to his off-season routine. With the monsoon having set in, Sarfaraz has already helped move some of the precious household items from his ground-floor home to a storage facility at a higher floor of a modest six-storey apartment in Taximen Colony, a 50-year-old colony in Kurla which is prone to flooding every monsoon.
Still, whenever the water recedes, Sarfaraz hits as many balls as possible on an 18-yard astroturf strip laid out by his father Naushad in the verandah next to the building. “This is the routine for the last decade. When I am not playing a match or training with Mumbai team-mates or batting at a maidan in Mumbai, I hit balls over here,” Sarfaraz says.
For well over a decade, Sarfaraz has been trying to realise a dream. It involves not only wearing the India jersey but also making father Naushad — his mentor-cum-coach-cum-warder-cum-inspiration — proud.
During the journey, Sarfaraz overcame several roadblocks. Despite being a boy wonder with the willow, Sarfaraz faced allegations of age-fudging and accusations of indiscipline, and then was forced to move to Uttar Pradesh (a move that he admits “pegged my career back two-three years”) before returning to Mumbai to finally live up to his billing as run-machine over the last two Ranji Trophy seasons.
All through this, it’s his constant desire of “doing what I love which is nothing but batting” and the determination to turn “Abbu ka sapna (father’s dream)” into a reality that has kept him going.
“I don’t think I was shaitan (naughty) but sometimes you can’t help how people perceive you. I have realised that if you are honest to yourself, all these things don’t matter. And when it’s going your way, it doesn’t take long to change others’ perception anyway,” he says.
Naushad, a left-arm pacer in Mumbai’s local circuit, has backed Sarfaraz and his younger brother Musheer — who was included in Mumbai’s Ranji Trophy squad for the knockouts for the first time — to the hilt. But he says his key task was to make his sons “taste blood.”
As a father who saw the struggles of not having made it big on a cricket field, I could push them only till a certain stage. Once they realised that cricket is their passion and can be their sole source of livelihood, they have been slogging it out
— Naushad Khan, Sarfaraz’s father
“As a father who saw the struggles of not having made it big on a cricket field, I could push them only till a certain stage. Once they realised that cricket is their passion and can be their sole source of livelihood, they have been slogging it out,” Naushad says, adding in his typical shairana style: “ Ek baar sher ne khoon chakh liya, toh fir lat lag jaati hai (It doesn’t take long to crave for more once you taste blood).”
Despite the strictness in handling Sarfaraz in his formative years — his father even slapped him for throwing his wicket away — it is heartening to see the father-son bond intact. It was evident when Sarfaraz broke down during an interaction with the media after his century in the final of the Ranji Trophy and dedicated the knock to his beloved Abbu.
One of the routines that the Khan trio has followed, even during the pandemic, is living the life of a vagabond during the off-season in the quest of gaining match-practice in varied conditions. Stuffing multiple cricket kits, Naushad drives Sarfaraz and Naushad — along with a couple more trusted lieutenants — to every nook and corner of northern India to make the most of the off-season.
Sarfaraz has admitted in the past how these exposure trips have helped him feel at home whenever he plays big matches up north. While Sarfaraz stayed back this time, Musheer went along with Naushad to fulfil the annual ritual.
The character that Sarfaraz is — his sledges on the field and pranks in the team hotel are as famous as his sensational strokeplay — he has been carrying multiple nicknames. The most famous are Macho (don’t think aloud, it’s the name of the club that Naushad runs) and Panda (due to his posture). But it’s the nickname that former Mumbai captain Aditya Tare gave him that Sarfaraz enjoys the most. “I like Javed the most,” he responds.
“Aditya gave it to me after Javed Miandad. He along with some of my team-mates feel I am chatur (smart), chaalaak (clever) and someone who keeps the dressing room happy just like the legendary batsman, so I just love it.” So what is the one aspect that he feels he has missed out on due to his obsession with cricket.
“Ummmm….. college,” he says, after thinking long and hard. “I have heard a lot about the fun that college is. Sometimes I feel I should have experienced that as well. But I guess I have had more fun in many ways than most college students.”
And what’s his go-to gadget and favourite holiday destination?
“I don’t have a fascination for cars or fancy watches or super-cool holidays. I am happy in my space. I know that every day I have to work harder to take a step closer to realising my and Abbu’s dream.”
Howsoever hard you try, you just cannot separate Sarfaraz’s quest to make his father proud. Naushad, meanwhile, doesn’t glorify Sarfaraz's stupendous feats over the last couple of years.
“I keep telling them before a match that you are not just playing a game, you are shaping your career and life with every game. Those who either graduate to Ranji Trophy, IPL or higher grade, enjoy their game and life in every respect,” Naushad says. “Some of the others who cannot make it end up struggling with odd jobs for the rest of their lives. If you work hard and aim for international cricket, you will tick all the other important boxes on the way.”
No wonder Sarfaraz is so driven towards turning his father’s dream into reality. It will be interesting to see if his stupendous success in the Ranji Trophy ends up being a step towards it.