It’s been over two decades since Sir Donald Bradman left this world, but his corporeal absence has had very little effect on his popularity and relevance. While surpassing his astronomical average is beyond the realms of human possibilities, despite all these advancements, a mere mention of any player in the same breath as him is in itself quite an achievement. This brings us to Sarfaraz Khan, a 24-year-old from Mumbai whose batting numbers have become the object of fans’ fascinations. And I say this because if you scroll through the list of batters with the highest domestic average, you’ll find Sarfaraz’s name just below Bradman’s.
It’s hard to find a more emphatic introduction for any budding player striving to break into the national scene. Sarfaraz, in his fledgling senior career, has shown a gluttonous appetite for runs. The seeds were sown quite early by his father Naushad Khan, who very well understood the significance of big innings in domestic cricket.
“To survive in the Mumbai circuit, you’ll have to score hundreds consistently. No one values 50-60-70 runs here. We call it Khadoos Cricket, and anything less than 100 is not enough to attract the selectors,” says Naushad over a telephonic conversation.
There’s a daylight difference between simply reaching a three-figure score and converting it into a daddy ton. How does Sarfaraz ensure that he doesn’t lose his focus during such a long stay in the middle? “Earlier it was stubbornness, now it has become a habit.” But this didn’t happen overnight, the player’s father assures us. “Our training in the formative years of Sarfaraz has a big role to play. Unless there was physical injury, we ensured that he played a minimum of 400-500 balls on a daily basis. He has rarely scored below centuries in age-group cricket, and once scored over 400 in an Under-12 competition,” he explains.
In the ongoing Ranji Trophy season, Sarfaraz has been averaging over 90 and is one of the primary reasons Mumbai is in the semi-final. He started with a gritty 275 against Saurashtra, and followed it with two more centuries, alongside several fifties.
As a child, Sarfaraz, along with his younger brother Musheer Khan, often accompanied Naushad to Azaad Maidan, the iconic ground in Mumbai that has been home to many illustrious cricketers, including the current India captain, Rohit Sharma. But Naushad’s coaching classes came to an abrupt halt after the ground was consumed by the excesses of an upcoming metro project.
Since then, he started focusing on Sarfaraz and Musheer even more. While Sarfaraz’s exploits in domestic cricket need no introduction now, Musheer too earned his maiden call-up for Ranji Trophy this year. Naushad has been methodical in his approach, both on and off-field.
But he doesn’t like being called a strict father. “Discipline is the apt word,” he asserts. He always asked his sons to treat cricket as education, and instilled good habits early in their lives. Waking up on time was non-negotiable for both Sarfaraz and Musheer since practice sessions start early in Mumbai.
Like most parents, Naushad is skeptical of social media. “A sports-person’s life is like that of a seal commando. A cricketer only has 15 years to leave his mark before he drifts away to obscurity. So, there shouldn’t be any place for distractions like social media”.
The first thing Musheer has to do upon reaching home is to submit his phone to his father. There’s a pact between them — Musheer will get his personal phone only after he achieves something substantial. Until that day comes, Naushad will continue to double up as his social media manager, too.
“This is the age of learning for Musheer. He needs to focus on his game, work on his weaknesses, and stay away from social media. I also handle Musheer’s Instagram account to save him time. When he goes on the tour, I give my own phone to him,” Naushad reveals.
But he understands the limit of his authoritarian approach, too. When asked whether he controls Sarfaraz’s screen time, he says, ” If I stretch a rubber beyond its breaking point, it will snap back at me. Sarfaraz is already rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in international cricket. So, it wouldn’t work if I handle his social media. But Musheer is young, so it works for him.”
A Methodical Coach
Naushad has built the foundation with extreme consideration, mindful of every little act and consequences it would have on his sons’ careers. Even during the lockdown, when the whole world had come to a screeching halt, Naushad traveled to faraway places for practice games.
“We traveled to Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and even Uttar Pradesh. Our first destination was Indore. Then, we traveled to places like Ghaziabad, Mathura, Faridabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Meerut, and Muradabad. Even at our ancestral home in Azamgarh, we used to practice on the rooftop or at a nearby farm.”
Essentially, Sarfaraz’s entire life has been designed around match practice. And it comes through in the strings of scores he has tallied in the last two sessions of the Ranji Trophy. But ever so often we see stalwarts conquer the domestic terrain, and yet behave like a fish out of water, when it comes to overseas tours. How then, does Sarfaraz seam, swing, and bounce?
When quizzed on this, Naushad reminds me of an unbeaten 71 that Sarfaraz scored for India during the tour to South Africa. “In England and New Zealand, there is excessive lateral movement. But in South Africa, this movement is accompanied by a steep bounce. It’s not easy to play there, and Sarfaraz looked very comfortable against Marco Jansen on his first tour. Our training is done accordingly.”
Naushad has an 18-yard artificial turf installed in front of his home (as compared to a regular 22-yard turf). Since it’s a relatively short pitch, the ball, delivered with side-arm action, often rises to uncomfortable heights. So, Naushad — who used to be an opening batter and spinner in his days — propels the ball from his left arm, while one of Sarfaraz’s siblings bowls from the right arm. Thus helping the batter get accustomed to facing both right-and left-handed pacers in challenging conditions.
“Now it’s only about getting an opportunity. Everything will become crystal clear, claims Naushad.
The Poetry In Cricket
There are no magic wands here. Sarfaraz and Musheer’s worlds have been built upon pure labour, both emotional and physical. Around 2015, the family had to leave Mumbai due to unforeseen circumstances, but nudge Naushad to speak about this and he’s likely to retract. .
“Those who hurt us become our best friends,” he philosophises as he looks back on their days of struggle. “There should either be hunger in the belly or a terrible heartbreak. As parents, we don’t let them sleep on an empty stomach. So, they should at least take their worries in the world and use them to fuel their dreams.
The unflinching pursuit to excel never dimmed, with this family, even when things didn’t look great. “We are connected to our roots. We have endured tough days, including a time [in our lives] when we had to queue up for the toilet” he recalls, adding that as things changed, many of his worries seemed to disappear. Sarfaraz is already knocking on the selector’s door, and sooner or later, he is destined to get a call. Musheer, 19, is already in the country’s most competitive side, the Mumbai Ranji team. Everything’s going as per plan. “We’ll do whatever is in our hands, the rest depends on the selectors,” he says.
After years of relentless toil, Naushad has learnt to take time out himself, which he spends reading and tweaking shayaris. Quoting his favourite shayar, Wasim Barelvi, Naushad poetically drifts away, murmuring, “Khushi Ki Aankhon Mein Aason Ki Bhi Jagah Rakhna, Bure Zamane Kabhi Puch Kar Nahi Aate Hai.”