Sarfaraz Khan walked out to bat in the seventh over of the Under-19 World Cup final with his team at 27 for 3. The first ball he faced was a bouncer.
The stage and the battle had been set. India were in trouble against an increasingly irrepressible West Indian side and their strategy against Sarfaraz was clear: they were going to bounce the hell out of him.
It wasn’t the first time a West Indies bowling attack had opted to test an Indian batsman’s technique and nerve.
Instead of letting the bouncer barrage upset him and force him into a rash stroke, Sarfaraz responded with an innings full of determination and no small amount of intelligence, all the more impressive because he is still a teenager.
Two balls in particular stood out for the way he handled them. In the 16th over, he was surprised by a short ball that spat at him but was alert enough to take his right hand off the bat to ensure the ball dropped gently instead of looping up.
Then, in the 32nd over, with India limping at 90 for 6, Sarfaraz was looking to attack a bit more. This time he got under a bouncer and calmly tapped it over the keeper’s head for four.
Two bouncers. Two different situations in the match. Two different results.
Sarfaraz would eventually be eighth out for 51 as India folded for 145 on a green track. ‘Extras’ was the second-highest scorer for India, with 23, as the rest of side failed to cope with the movement and bounce the likes of Alzarri Joseph and Chemar Holder were generating.
The West Indies would go on to win the final by five wickets but Sarfaraz had done enough, once again, to show why he is the best of India’s next generation.
Over the course of the tournament, India batted first five times out of six and each time Sarfaraz went past 50. Three of those times, he was the team’s highest scorer. In four of those games, including the final, he strode out to the crease inside the first 12 overs, including three times inside the first 10.
Each time Sarfaraz responded with a patient, sensible innings that with the final being the notable exception, eventually resulted in an Indian victory.
The difference between him and the rest of Indian batsmen in this tournament was his judgement of length and his ability to choose the right shot.
Rarely was he in a wrong position when the ball arrived at the crease.
He also showed he could adapt his game to the situation. An attacking batsman by nature, Sarfaraz had batted at No. 6 in the last World Cup, so he had a license to go after the bowling from the first ball.
This time, he was one of the senior batsmen in the team batting at No. 4 (No. 5 in the final) and with that promotion, came added responsibilities.
“Everyone has a role in the team, and my role is to play as long as possible,” he said after India’s opening match against Ireland.
That he was able to adapt his game to suit that role is an indication that he isn’t a one-trick pony and there is more to his game than the flashy shots — inspired by AB de Villiers — which he displayed in the IPL while playing for Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Sarfaraz was easily the highest scorer for India, with 355 runs at an average of 71. And only England’s Jack Burnham, with 420 runs, topped Sarfaraz across the entire tournament.
Of course, he is not a finished article yet. The one obvious flaw in this tournament was Sarfaraz’s inability to push on and reach three figures.
Given that Sarfaraz once made over 400 runs in a school match, this is somewhat surprising but he has only played six first-class matches in his career so far and has time to learn how to construct a big innings.
The other is his fitness.
Sarfaraz is still more Arjuna Ranatunga than Virat Kohli but having played under the latter at RCB, he is taking his fitness more seriously.
“After playing in IPL, you get to learn new things and you try to implement those things in your overall development,” he said after the Ireland game. From Virat bhai I have learned how important fitness is to my game.
If he can also learn to construct an innings like Virat bhai, it won’t be long before he is knocking on the door of the senior team.