Sarfaraz Khan was still in his teens when he arrived at the Azad Maidan in Mumbai one warm morning for a friendly match between his team assembled by his father Naushad Khan and the Sports Journalists Association of Mumbai (SJAM) six years ago.

After completing his morning training as given by his father, Sarfaraz took guard against the not-so-threatening bowlers from SJAM. Even though it was a friendly match, Sarfaraz was determined to score runs and boost his confidence.

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While it was a friendly match for the scribes, for Sarfaraz, it was a part of his practice schedule to work on a few areas that his father had given him to try out. With yours truly behind keeping wickets, there was no better place than to admire his batting skills. There was this particular stroke that he drove through the cover with so much power off the middle of the bat that the ball was travelling through the vast uneven Azad Maidan surface to the far end at a great speed.

Sarfaraz wanted to see the ball cross the imaginary boundary line that he even shouted a warning for two girls walking at a distance to steer clear of the ball, lest they get hit on their ankle.

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Practice makes a man perfect, as they say. It has stayed true for Sarfaraz, going by the volumes of runs he has been scoring in the red-ball cricket that it is just a matter of time that he is selected into the Indian Test team.

For Sarfaraz, who will turn 25 on October 22, to be scoring 900-plus runs in back-to-back Ranji Trophy seasons for Mumbai – 928 at 154.66 in 2019-20 and 982 at 122.75 in 2021-22 (2020-21 not held due to Covid) is no mean achievement. Be it for India ‘A’, West Zone or for that matter for Rest of India in the recent Irani Cup match in which he scored an attacking 138 for Rest of India against Saurashtra including an unbeaten 125 off just 126 balls out of Rest of India’s total of 205 for three on the opening day, Sarfaraz is determined to leave an impression and knock on the doors of Test cricket.

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After falling for 138 on the second day of Irani Cup, Sarfaraz sent a message to his father saying ‘Sorry, abbu, I made a mistake’. His father replied back saying ‘never mind, make it bigger next time’.

The speciality about Sarfaraz over the last couple of years, since his return to Mumbai cricket after trying his luck with Uttar Pradesh, is that he is not pleased with just hundreds. He wants to make it big, and his scores – 301 not out, 226 not out, 177 in 2019-20 and 275, 165, 153 besides the 134 in the final in 2021-22 – are proof of that.

Add to them the two centuries in successive innings – 127 not out in the Duleep Trophy final and the 138, and Sarfaraz is nothing but a run machine.

The secret behind Sarfaraz’s consistent run-making abilities is the practice given by his father at his humble home in Kurla in the Eastern suburbs of Mumbai.
“From the time he returned from Uttar Pradesh to play for Mumbai, I knew he had to do extraordinarily well to be accepted in the Mumbai cricketing circles. The one-year cooling-off period (2018-19) did wonders for Sarfaraz,” Naushad told news18.com on the day Rest of India, riding on Sarfaraz’s 138 in the first innings, lifted the Irani Cup with an eight-wicket win over Saurashtra in Rajkot.

“During the cooling-off period, I took Sarfaraz to different places like Moradabad, Lucknow, Kanpur, Meerut, Haryana and Delhi among others to practice and play matches. The idea was to prepare him for different conditions, pitches, oppositions so that he does not have the fear of anything related to cricket.

There is no fear of the opposition, there is no fear of the pitches, conditions, bowlers, travel. Whatever situation he faces, he is ready with an ‘Oh, I have played in this situation before. I can do it again’,” said Naushad, who has been a small-time coach in Mumbai maidans and who believes in his wards including Sarfaraz and his younger son Musheer Khan (Musheer is now the Mumbai under-19 captain, a left-arm spinner), gaining confidence and being match aware rather than just perfecting the art of batting or bowling.

“I believe confidence is better than perfection,” said Naushad. There is no substitute for hard work when it comes to Sarfaraz and Naushad.

Naushad recalled a couple of instances that made Sarfaraz all the more determined to score big. “During the India ‘A’ series against New Zealand ‘A’ in Bengaluru last month, Sarfaraz scored 36 in the first ‘Test’, did not play in the second and was out for 0 in the first innings of the third ‘Test’. After he was out for nought in the first innings, I took a flight to Bengaluru. Sarfaraz scored 63 in the second innings.

After the match, I arranged for extra net sessions under floodlights at Karnataka Institute of Cricket, not far away from M Chinnaswamy Stadium. I had taken some swing balls from home and those sessions made him feel better,” said Naushad.

Naushad accompanied Sarfaraz from Bengaluru to Coimbatore by road for the Duleep Trophy final, dropped him there, boosted his confidence for the match with some pep talks and returned to Mumbai before the match started. Naushad said: “I did not want to be there for the Duleep Trophy final as I wanted Sarfaraz to focus on the match and not me and my presence there.”

Himself a club cricketer, Naushad made Sarfaraz play on a wet wicket at Azad Maidan three days before the Irani Cup. “It had rained in Mumbai, the opposition had a Mumbai U-23 bowler. The idea to play Sarfaraz in unhelpful conditions was to make him get used to late swing and to play late. I told him to always be ready for anything that the pitch offers, be ready for all types of situations and all types of conditions,” said Naushad, adding that his son made 70-odd while he himself made 12.

The hours of hard work that Naushad has been investing on Sarfaraz is bearing fruits now. “My dream is to see Sarfaraz represent the country. When he was not getting enough chances in UP, he decided to return to Mumbai. Initially, he was included in the Mumbai U-23 squad and when some of the Mumbai players were on India and India ‘A’ duty, Sarfaraz got a chance to play in Ranji Trophy.”

His comeback match for Mumbai in Ranji Trophy was against Karnataka at BKC in January 2020. Under helpful conditions for the bowlers, Sarfaraz threw it away for just eight in the first innings.

“After that first innings, we spoke and I told him to not miss the opportunity of scoring. Mumbai needed Sarfaraz Khan as much as Sarfaraz Khan needed to play for Mumbai. He scored an unbeaten 71 in the second innings, a knock that gave him the confidence that he can do it when the chips are down,” said Naushad.
Naushad’s policy for Sarfaraz is not to throw the wicket away even during practice.

“I constantly tell him to put a huge price for his wicket, not to be satisfied with just hundreds but to score big hundreds. When we decided to return to Mumbai from UP, initially I was sceptical if Sarfaraz would be welcomed back. He said that he would make it count with extraordinary performances. He took it to his heart and began working hard.”

The practice that Naushad gives Sarfaraz, be it at home in the nets with the swinging ball or arranging grounds in the city for net practice and match simulations, has made the cricketer that the right-handed batsman is today.
Naushad said: “I prepare him for the ways in which the opposition thinks. How would Chandrakant Pandit, as MP coach, have blocked Sarfaraz’s scoring areas and what are the alternatives for him. If the opposition cuts down his favourite sweep shot and has a fielder for his upper cut to fast bowlers, I tell him to have patience and wear the opposition out.

During practice sessions, I make Sarfaraz bat as if he is batting in a match. With new balls, old balls, bat for two-and-a-half hours in the morning session with the red ball, then get into 50-over format for the session between lunch and tea, and then for the 20-over format in the post-tea session with Power Plays, fielding restrictions and giving bowlers targets to defend against Sarfaraz.

“So, all three formats are covered in a single day. This includes blocking, quick running between wickets and even standing at the non-striker’s end. To me, standing at the non-striker’s end is also an art that needs to be perfected. These kinds of sessions have helped Sarfaraz to absorb pressure. He is used to different conditions, new ball, old ball, batting for stumps, taking guard the next morning, etc. He has become a very good student of the game. He is now very dedicated and has that burning desire to play for the country.”

The day is not far away for the talented batsman, who has risen from a chubby school boy cricketer scoring big runs to a matured batsman dreaming to play Test cricket, to earn the national call.

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