So much has been written about Sarfaraz Khan since he made 439 for Rizvi Springfield School in a Harris Shield match in Mumbai in 2009 that there is very little that has not been tracked about his progress over the years. It’s now firmly established that he relishes pressure situations and thrives when pushed to a corner. He is temperamental and cheeky by nature, and he loves his bike and pet cat. It is also known that Sarfaraz’s father Naushad, a hard taskmaster, makes most of his decisions for him, like his shift from Mumbai to Uttar Pradesh to get more game time at the first-class level.
It is also known that his Royal Challengers Bangalore teammates in the Indian Premier League call him panda for his voracious appetite for food and runs.
But, as he walked towards us after receiving the man of the match award for his 70-ball 74 which helped India beat Ireland by 79 runs in their opening Group D match of the ICC Under-19 World Cup on Thursday (January 28), one noticed that he has shed a lot of baby fat and looks more athletic.
Even though there is still a lot of scope for improvement, Sarfaraz credited Virat Kohli, his skipper at the Bangalore franchise, for the ongoing transformation.
“It has happened by seeing Virat bhai. After playing in IPL, you get to learn new things and you try to implement those things in your overall development,” Sarfaraz said, even as he toyed with the acrylic trophy in his hand. “From Virat bhai, I have learnt how much importance to give to fitness.”
In fact, there are more similarities between Kohli and Sarfaraz than just fitness aspirations. Naturally aggressive, both of them love to control the pace of the game, and both push themselves hard to contribute to winning causes. But, both are also intelligent enough to recognise at their respective levels that going slow is at times a prudent option in order to reap bigger rewards. And, they do that quite cannily, backing themselves to make up for the dot deliveries with their boundary-finding abilities.
Sarfaraz gave a glimpse of that knack on Thursday. Soon after he came out to bat in the 12th over, after India had been put in in seaming conditions, he saw his team reduced to 55 for 4.
Sarfaraz, however, hardly looked perturbed. Sure of himself, he concentrated on rotating the strike in Washington Sundar’s company.
He played out 26 dot balls – most of them in the first half of his innings – effectively meaning he scored his 74 runs in 44 balls, which included seven well-timed boundaries. Break it down, and he ran for his 46 runs.
While his first four off his 12th ball – a mistimed loft past the bowler – was a release shot, his next set of boundaries were more convincing. But at no point was finding the fence the priority and in that approach, Sarfaraz gave a glimpse of his growing maturity.
Take out a leading edge early in the innings and the dropped chance at cover on 48, he was in control for all his deliveries.
Sanjay Manjrekar, who was commentating on the game, was impressed.
— Sanjay Manjrekar (@sanjaymanjrekar) January 28, 2016
Those who have followed Sarfaraz’s past would have hardly been surprised as he had played a similar knock in Dubai in the game against Pakistan in the last Under-19 World Cup where he and Sanju Samson rescued India from 94 for 4 through a 119-run stand.
While Sarfaraz was a newbie in that team with the freedom to play cameos from No. 6, he is the No. 4 batsman in the current set-up who is expected to guide those around him and stay in the middle for a longer duration.
“I am an attacking batsman and till last year, I was batting at No. 6, so I had to attack (right from the start),” he pointed out. “This year, I am batting at No. 4. So, I have to take more responsibility. Everyone has a role in the team, and my role is to play as long as possible.”
Sarfaraz’s knock would not have fructified had he lacked support. Washington was equally impressive in the 110-run association. Not once did he look like losing the plot, and Sarfaraz was appreciative of the support he received.
“It was a crucial partnership because we had lost four wickets. He also opens the batting for our team, so I was confident that he would be able to tackle the swing and seam,” Sarfaraz explained. “Our lower order is fine, so we were focussed on playing as long as possible.”
Asked if, in bowling-friendly conditions, it would be more appropriate for the openers to spend more time at the crease without worrying about the run-rate, Sarfaraz opted to see the glass as half full.
“The ball will swing, the bowlers will do their job, but an individual cannot change his game at this level,” he said, standing up for the failure of the top order. “Yes, if the batsman understands the situation and plays it is good, but if those shots start connecting, then the batsmen following him will have it easy. It depends on the day. Today was my day, it might be the top-three’s day tomorrow and they might bat well. The wicket here was seaming a bit initially, but as the wicket improved, we got better.”
Sarfaraz also credited Ireland for rising to the occasion and making it a competitive game. “In World Cup games against India, all teams give not their 100%, but 200%,” he said with a smile. “You cannot take anyone easy in cricket. We are focussed on playing hard cricket and winning.”
On a personal front, Sarfaraz was unhappy that he could not convert his start to a big knock, but was already looking at the brighter side.
“I had thought of taking my own time, and it happened like that. I am quite sad because I know if you score big in your first match, then you carry that confidence to the next game,” he added, once again giving a glimpse of his Kohli-like mentality. “But whatever has happened, has happened. I can’t keep thinking about it. To do well in my next game is in my control and I will try to do that. I will try to ensure that the mistakes we did in the last World Cup are not repeated here, and we go on to become the champions.”
Leave aside his primary skills, the fact that Sarfaraz remembers the drawbacks from the previous edition where India finished fifth is worth gold dust for the present team management.
So, the time has come for Baazigar – his nickname in the previous team for his ability to finish games – to graduate to a nurturer. The knock against Ireland was the first step towards realising that aspiration.