Sarfaraz Khan couldn’t sleep. Room-mate Shashank Attarde was woken up by Kishore Kumar and Mohammad Rafi songs at 4 am on June 7. Not that Attarde minded too much, even though it was in the middle of Mumbai’s ongoing Ranji Trophy quarterfinal against Uttarakhand.
The fact is, whatever Sarfaraz does, seems to be working spectacularly for him. Coming into the quarterfinal, in the league stage before IPL 2022, the right-hander had scores of 275, 63, 48 and 165. Here, on Day 1, he had already motored to 69 not out at the end of the first day in Alur, Bangalore.
“I was very excited! I was very close, on 69. A hundred is something, it counts in Ranji Trophy,” Sarfaraz smiled, while recounting the early morning hijinks. “I had gone to sleep early so I wasn’t getting sleep. I also am in the habit of waking up that early because even at home, I am up by 4.30 am because there is a lot of travel. Wake up at 4.30 am, go to Azad Maidaan to practice, then leave for Bandra-Kurla Complex at 8 am because from 9 am there is Mumbai practice… so I have that habit (of waking up early).
“I always ask for him (Attarde) as my room-mate because since he began rooming with me, the runs haven’t stopped coming.”
The covid-19 pandemic seemed to have come at the worst possible time for Sarfaraz, because after coming back into the Mumbai team following a short and restless stint with Uttar Pradesh, he had racked up 928 runs in six matches, including a triple and a double century. He played his last Ranji game in the 2019-20 season in February 2020. With the tournament suspended for a year, his next game was in February 2022 – and it was as if there had never been any pandemic or a year’s break, as he hit 275 against defending champions Saurashtra.
“The credit goes to abbu,” Sarfaraz said of Naushad – father, mentor, coach. “He has worked hard… When I left the Taj after the IPL, I didn’t even go home first. I went for Ranji Trophy practice and went home only in the evening. And I would practice three times in a day. Early morning, then with the Mumbai team for the Ranji Trophy, then with abbu.”
If that sounds excessively obsessive, it is.
“I am obsessed with cricket, because there is nothing in my life apart from it,” Sarfaraz said. “And it’s also more because my abbu is my coach, so at home too, coaching is always on. My abbu told me that as long as you’re playing cricket, you have to think you have an L board behind you, for a learner’s license. Keep it going till you are playing.
“I share my nets videos with abbu. Two days back I was a bit worried. I told him ‘Abbu my elbow is going a bit inwards, my bat face is closing I think – because I’ve played a lot of white-ball cricket.’ He saw the videos and said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with all that. The only thing is, your foot’s trigger movement is too rapid, which is why your weight is going that side.’ It’s like only a family doctor can tell you what you need when. He’s my everything.”
That obsession with cricket, of both older and younger generation, meant that even when Covid struck, Naushad found a way for his boys – younger son Musheer is also in Mumbai’s Ranji squad – to get game-time.
“Whenever there’s off-season – or in this case a lockdown – we take the car and travel 2500-3000 kms,” Sarfaraz shared. “My hometown is in UP, so we go through MP, Mathura, Ghaziabad…we take a couple of days halts often, there are lots of academies there, and I play matches. That way my cricket also keeps going, and I can understand pitches quicker. Like what’s the difference between black soil and red soil?
"On black soil, you can’t play square as well as you can with red soil. You should play with a straight bat. On red-soil ones, you have to play late. You can leave short balls, because there’s more bounce. Abbu has made me play in so many places, I’ve gained a lot of experience. He says that no matter where I am playing a match for my state, I should feel it’s like a home ground. The reason he made me tour everywhere is that the fear inside goes away that ‘this is an alien place and conditions for me’.”
Turns out, Sarfaraz’s pandemic-proof form appeared seamless because it was. He had practiced his batting even when others couldn’t.
On the morning of Day 2, Sarfaraz had sparkled his way to 94, when seamer Akash Madhwal bowled a short ball outside off. Sarfaraz nonchalantly rose up on his toes and ramped it over third man for an upper-cut six. For a few seconds, all was stillness and then the Mumbai dressing room broke into raucous applause. It was only then that Sarfaraz realised he’d reached the century he had targeted, and let out roars of celebration.
“I have this habit that even if I take 7-8 singles, I tell myself that I’ve just taken one or two singles and there’s time still to make a big score,” Sarfaraz explained. “In one over, I had hit two fours and a six, and I thought 10 runs are remaining (for his century). So why is everyone clapping? But my teammates also tell me that, ‘Macho, whenever you play, the runs come so quickly that we don’t realise it.’ I wanted that hundred. You can’t leave that so easily. Yes, I have been getting runs, but everyone gets nervous when you approach a century. So was I.”
He's already got 704 runs already this season in just his fourth match, Sarfaraz is already on top of the run charts. And that hunger for hundreds isn’t going away anytime soon.
(Photo courtesy: BCCI Domestic)