The setting couldn't have been more ironic.
Subroto Banerjee, the national selector, reached the KSCA Oval of the Alur facility exactly a minute after the scheduled start of the third day's play between West Zone and Central Zone. Watching Cheteshwar Pujara and Sarfaraz Khan bat must have been at the top of his agenda, and as the Mumbaikar took guard against Saurabh Kumar, Banerjee took a pause near the boundary line.
In the truest sense, selection in the national team can never be the function of one fleeting moment of success or failure, but sometimes, you wonder if it has a bearing on how things have been perceived, no matter your past achievements. The non-selection for the Windies tour, despite piling on a truckload of runs in the last three seasons of the Ranji and Duleep Trophy, was weighing heavily on the mind of Sarfaraz, and a big knock could have given him the satisfaction of being relevant again.
But things turned out to be a lot different. With Banerjee watching him closely, Sarfaraz edged one to wicket-keeper Upendra Yadav in that over itself without adding anything to his overnight total. The typically restrained and poker-faced Banerjee didn't show any reaction and walked towards his chamber, but you wonder if that's the end of the Sarfaraz chatter for the next few months.
Sarfaraz's perceived weakness against short balls was the eventual kryptonite against Shivam Mavi in the first innings, as the Uttar Pradesh pacer managed to trouble him regularly before castling him for a duck. In the second innings, with an assured Pujara at the other end, Sarfaraz had a brilliant opportunity to bury the discussion about the quality of bowlers he faces.
But it was a spinner, a left-arm spinner against whom he has had tremendous success over the years, who ended up cutting short his stay in the middle in the second innings. Saurabh brought him forward with a flighted delivery, but the ball spun away to take an edge for Upendra Yadav to complete a regulation catch.
Even though West Zone may go on to enjoy a substantial lead and win the match, it is not going to be easy for the Mumbai No.5 batter to regain the discussion in his favor. The Duleep Trophy Final and maybe the Irani Cup will provide him two more chances before the Ranji Trophy starts in January 2024. That is a long gap for someone who wants to get into the system and is battling for a spot against established names like Ajinkya Rahane and Shreyas Iyer. He doesn't keep wickets in the longer formats of the game; hence that spot is now reserved for KS Bharat until Rishabh Pant makes a comeback.
It is sad because the body of work that he has put in over the last four years is so impressive that among batters with a minimum of 2000 runs, he is second only to Sir Don Bradman in terms of career first-class average. Among the incumbent middle-order batters on the domestic circuit, many don't even average half of what the Mumbaikar has achieved in the last three years. Baba Indrajith, Mandeep Singh, and Shubman Gill average over 70 as middle-order batters, but the first two are not in the national team scheme of things. Indrajith, despite his success, failed to make the cut for the South Zone side, while Mandeep Singh, if not injured now, would have made it to the North Zone squad.
Setting aside the cricketing reasons, there have been considerable concerns about Sarfaraz's fitness and conduct on the field. There have been reports about a particular selector being irked by his gesture towards him after completing a century in one first-class match. While he has been kept in the system and is a regular at the National Cricket Academy, where he practiced for a week before the Duleep Trophy, Sarfaraz's lack of a regimented fitness routine is considered to be a roadblock in his selection process.
"Are the selectors fools not to consider a player who has scored 900 plus runs in successive seasons? One of the reasons is his fitness, which isn't exactly of international standard. His conduct on and off the field hasn't exactly been top-notch. Certain things said, certain gestures made, and some incidents have been taken note of. A bit more disciplined approach would only do him a world of good. Hopefully, Sarfaraz, along with his father and coach Naushad Khan, will work on those aspects," a BCCI official recently told PTI.
All those wouldn't have mattered one bit if he had managed to make the most of the opportunity in Alur. But as things stand, he will have to wait. Wait until there is an injury or, like many things with Indian cricket, a spot opens up out of nowhere. Until then, he can't afford to have games like the one in Alur. Piling on runs is non-negotiable.
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