“I am obsessed with cricket, because there is nothing in my life apart from it. 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.”
For someone, who has been accused of neglecting fitness drills, being indiscipline and frickle, this was a revealing statement.
Runs haven’t stopped coming for Sarfaraz Khan for a while now. Away from the glamours of Indian Premier League, he has piled on runs, as is his wont, to deliver one masterclass after another. From the likes of Suryakumar Yadav being overjoyed for his success to domestic cricket followers breaking the internet to demand a national call-up, it has been a journey worth the front page.
When national selectors - Sunil Joshi, Debashish Mohanty and Harvinder Singh - all dropped by to have a lengthy chat with him during the Ranji Trophy final last season, it wasn’t really surprising rather it was the acknowledgement for the jaw-dropping audacity that the Mumbaikar has managed to showcase on a consistent basis for the last three years. All these, while enduring a child-like aura and doing the Sidhu Moosewala celebration without any inhibition.
In the 2019/20 & 2021/22 seasons, Sarfaraz Khan accumulated 1856 runs despite the last season being a truncated one. For a batter with a minimum of 2000 career first-class runs, Sarfaraz’s dominance has put him at the second spot behind none other than Sir Don Bradman in terms of career first-class average. Almost flabbbergastingly, in 23 innings since 2019, Sarfaraz has 2259 runs at an average of 125.9 with no less than 9 centuries on board.
Still if the accumulated figures don’t make your jaws drop, then let me break them down. In the 2019/20 season, his scores read something like these - 8, 71*, 36, 301*, 226*, 78, 25, 177 and 6. When the Ranji Trophy was held again after a year’s break, he put 275, 63, 48, 165, 153, 40, 59* and 134 runs on the board. Coming fresh into the 2022/23 season, 34, 127* and 138 already. You don’t need to follow every single domestic game to know what he has been doing in the last few seasons. Headlines would invariably tell you.
Any cricketer of any era would be proud to have such numbers to his name and in no way, wouldn’t be in the Indian set-up in almost every single match. Accounting for the fact that the Indian middle-order has been the weakest it has ever been in the last half a decade further makes the debate an interesting one. But let's delve deeper to have a more intrinsic idea.
Among the incumbent middle-order batters on the domestic circuit, many don't even average half of what the Mumbaikar has achieved in the timeframe. Baba Indrajith, Mandeep Singh, and Shubman Gill average over 70 as middle-order batters, but the first two are not in the scheme of things. Indrajith, for all his success, failed to make the cut for the Rest of India side while Mandeep Singh’s rampant run of form only yielded him a North Zone spot.
Then how come Sarfaraz Khan still hasn’t even made it to the side?
With India persisting with Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara for the longest time, the chance for other incumbent batters went up in smoke. But when the selectors decided to move on, Shreyas Iyer had already set up the stall there. By striking an immediate century against New Zealand and playing a brave innings against Sri Lanka, Iyer showcased his game-awareness and the ability to play spin in two most crucial games that rewarded him with another Test cap in England.
Then there was the Pujara return. After scoring heaps of runs in the County Championship, when Pujara made his way back to the Indian set-up for the rescheduled Test against England, it was going back on their action and Sarfaraz’s India chances couldn’t materialize. Was it the right point the selectors could have handed the Mumbaikar a chance? But it can be argued that throwing him to the deep end in an important Test match in England would have been a disaster and there is real merit to that assessment.
Over the years, the Mumbaikar’s fitness has remained a large concern as well. During his time at Royal Challengers Bangalore, Virat Kohli was so unhappy at his fitness and discipline that he dropped him from the XI consistently. The question of commitment has been raised far too many times during his time at Punjab Kings too.
But if the recent events and his approach to everything in life in between have anything to go by, we perhaps have a different Sarfaraz walking the path currently. The upcoming Bangladesh series provides the selection committee a perfect opportunity to test the waters and prepare a side to battle the middle-order transition that is coming up. Will that be the end of a long-drawn wait? Let’s wait to hear this straight from the horse's mouth.