New Delhi: Ever since Sarfaraz Khan returned for his second innings with the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team, he has once again proved that he is the best domestic batsman in India.
And this 24-year-old batsman made this statement after standing tall amid the crumbling Mumbai during the Ranji Trophy final against Madhya Pradesh in Bengaluru, scoring 179 (134 in the first & 45 in the second innings).
Though MP won their maidan Ranji title by defeating Mumbai by six wickets, but Sarfaraz won Man-of-the-Tournament award for scoring season’s maximum 982 runs at an average of 122.75.
At second was his distant rival, Rajat Patidar from MP, who scored 658 runs in six games at an average of 82.25. Two centuries and five half-centuries came out of his bat, with the individual best score of 142.
Not to forget that Sarfaraz scored 928 runs in the previous Ranji season (2019-20). In fact, there are only two other batters in this elite club. Delhi’s Ajay Sharma scored 933 in 1991-92 and 1033 in 1996-97, while Mumbai’s former skipper Wasim Jaffer got 1260 in 2008-09 and then 1037 in 2018-19 before his retirement.
With a batting average of over 82 in first-class cricket, Sarfaraz is only second to the legendary Sir Donald Bradman’s average of 95.14. It is the second-highest for any batter with 2000-plus runs in the format. Earlier in the ongoing Ranji season, Sarfaraz stroked a brilliant 153 against Uttarakhand in the quarter-finals. This included his 267-run partnership for the fourth wicket with debutant Suved Parkar, who hit a double century on debut.
The manner in which Sarfaraz has turned a corner since the 2019-20 season (928 runs back then) is phenomenal, especially as he had disciplinary issues early in his career, which also forced him to leave Mumbai for a season.
This has happened only because his father Naushad Khan, who also doubles up as his coach, make him play almost 400 balls (65-plus overs) every day at the nets. Sarfaraz, in his 2.0 is a much-disciplined batter that every captain would love to have in his team.
That was visible in Sarfaraz’s batting in the final against MP where he batted mostly with the tailenders. He chose the loose deliveries for a boundary, forcing opposition to open the field even after Mumbai’s top-order was back in the pavilion.
Not to forget that he had to migrate to Uttar Pradesh for a season after some disciplinary issue raked up in Mumbai cricket. That’s how he had to sacrifice one year, for serving a mandatory cooling off, before returning to play for the champion Mumbai side again.
For those who have tracked Sarfaraz playing local cricket in Mumbai since the age of seven, his run-filled knocks have always attracted the attention of cricket lovers.
Accompanying his father, Naushad, he would travel to different parts of the city to get as much practise and exposure as possible. And all these matches were mostly played against bowers who were at least double his age.
Sarfaraz’s key was his timing, despite his bat coming up to his waist. He had that ‘wow’ factor about him. Just like other Mumbai greats in recent times, like Sachin Tendulkar or Rohit Sharma, Sarfaraz’s talent left many speechless on Mumbai’s maidans.
However, a closer look at his career progress makes one wonder if he, despite still being so young, has underachieved so far.
Sarfaraz’s rise in age-group cricket was phenomenal. Who could forget that mammoth 439-run innings in the Harris Shield inter-school tournament at the age of 12? Five years later, after scoring big for Mumbai’s Under-16 and 19 sides, he broke into the Indian team for the Under-19 World Cup. He notched up 211 runs in six games at an average of 70.33.
Based on his performances, he was picked up by the Royal Challengers Bangalore team for Rs 50 lakh to play in the Indian Premier League the following year. He became the youngest to do so at the age of just 17. In the next season, he once again got to play in the Under-19 World Cup and returned with 355 runs from six matches.
All seemed to be going well till this juncture. Sarfaraz had made his mark on the global stage and appeared to be on his way to the highest level, Team India.
But as luck would have it, things took a turn for the worse.
Sarfaraz’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 proved to be a disaster as he didn’t get consistent opportunities to play there during his stay for two seasons.
He was dropped on the pretext of injury from the UP’s one-day squad. This is despite the fact that Sarfaraz was again retained by RCB and he had a good U-19 WC in 2016 after switching to UP.
This played heavily in his mind. Sarfaraz 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. To add to that, he suffered back and knee injuries at this point in time.
This was the time when Sarfaraz realised the importance of fitness in order to survive at the highest level of competition. And that also made him make up his mind to return to Mumbai, the Mecca of cricket, by 2018.
He knew that it was difficult to play for India unless he played for a team like Mumbai. He even sacrificed his one full year as a “cooling off period” in order to be eligible to play for Mumbai again. Sarfaraz was a bit frustrated, but 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. With two of Mumbai’s leading batters, Shreyas Iyer and Shivam Dube, getting elevated to the Indian team, there was an opening for Sarfaraz in Mumbai’s Ranji Trophy side for the 2019-20 season.
And what followed was a dream come true for Sarfaraz. In a disappointing season for Mumbai as a team, he was the lone shining star for Mumbai with scores like 08, 71 not out, 36, 301 not out, 226 not out, 78, 25, 177, and 06 with a healthy strike rate of nearly 80 in the 11 innings he got to perform.
Sarfaraz, though, finished as the fifth-highest run-getter, but he got the maximum praise from all the cricket critics for his impressive show.
Sarfaraz’s career seems to be on the upswing once again.
With young stars like Prithvi Shaw, Shardul Thakur, Shreyas Iyer and Shivam Dube already in possession of an India cap, this 24-year-old is next in line to grab his piece of the pie.
And this timely century in the ongoing Ranji final has now put him firmly on the radar of the national selectors. Who knows, his ultimate aim of playing for Team India could well be realised in November when Team India is slated to tour Bangladesh for a two-Test tour! – INDIA NEWS STREAM`
The writer is a senior sports journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org