"Apni life me already uppar neech uppar neeche aa chuka hai, ab zyaada se zyaada kyaa hoga? Ye hi life me baar baar repeat hoga. To uske baare me sochke fayda nahi (I have consistently endured ups and down in life, so what’s the worst that could happen? The struggle will continue, so there is no point thinking more about it)."
Sarfaraz Khan gets philosophical as he talks about life and cricket during the lockdown. Sarfaraz has been no stranger to the start and stop musical chairs of life. The last four-five years have been a bumpy journey for the youngster and just when it seemed everything was getting back on track, his world halted again. Sarfaraz was in the form of his life having plundered 928 runs at a staggering average of 154.66 in the 2019-20 Ranji Trophy after coming back from a one-year cooling off period. He would have been playing this year's IPL for Kings XI Punjab and trying to get his cricketing career further back on track.
The momentum has stopped. It is natural that the current state of things might result in insecurities in a 22-year-old, but Sarfaraz is unperturbed. He draws parallels as well as confidence from the cooling off period and a long injury layoff.
"This will most probably stay shut for 2-3 or maximum four months," Sarfaraz explains. "But when I was in the cooling-off period, I wasn't allowed to play any domestic cricket for one year. Before that I had an ACL injury that confined me to home for five months. At that time I didn't think what will happen to me and my career? Mera yehi sochna hai ki sochna hi nahi hai zyaada (My only thinking was not to think much). If I think I will be finished then it creates a big problem. Bade bade cricketer logo ke life me uppar neeche aaya hai (Even top cricketers have faced ups and downs). I just kept working hard."
These words also reflect the new matured version of the Mumbai batsman. Sarfaraz was in Bhopal preparing for the IPL by playing in a local tournament when the news of coronavirus started to make waves. His father Naushad Khan didn't want him to use the public transport so he drove from Mumbai, picked up Sarfaraz after the tournament and then they drove to his village in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh.
It’s difficult to keep Sarfaraz away from cricket for long. So he started practising on the terrace of his village home with his father. The blankets, beds, and bedsheets got converted into makeshift nets. With the holy month of Ramadan on and the day temperatures touching mid 40s , the time tables changed. Sarfaraz practised from 9 pm to 3 am. The fitness sessions have also started. He runs four kilometres daily on the uneven quicksand type surface over the fields.
And when he is not practising, the mind still doesn't drift away from cricket.
"I do a lot of visualisation," Sarfaraz says. If I am sitting idle or alone, then I take my mind back to the past: what I had done in Ranji Trophy, how I had kept patience, how I had scored runs, with what mindset I used to go out to bat. See, if you have used a pen million times, then you can write with it when you are blindfolded as well. So it's all about practice. I don’t leave practice whether it is running, cricket or mind exercise.
The tough times
The last four-five years have been an uneven period for Sarfaraz. After shifting base to UP from Mumbai, which was his father's decision, things started going downhill. Lack of chances, inconsistencies, fitness issues and an ACL injury threatened to derail his career. The cherubic boy who had burst onto the scene with his flamboyant batting in his first IPL season was staring into oblivion.
The frustrations did creep in. But he didn't get bogged down by the mental pressure.
"Life me agar aapko khelna hai ya jeena hai to aapko pressure se jaana hi padega (It doesn't matter if you are a sportsperson or an ordinary person, you have to handle pressure in life). Even if you are not playing cricket, you have to worry about your home and making ends meet. So how you wade through those difficulties is what matters.
“You have to reach the ground on time, practice hard and spend more time on the field. I knew only these three things, nothing else. In life, pressures will come and go, it’s happened with me a lot of times. I had started to deal with pressure from a very young age so I didn't get too much affected.”
Sarfaraz decided to shift back to Mumbai. It was another tough decision considering the fact that he would have to serve a mandatory one-year cooling-off period. However, Sarfaraz made his decision – he started off his career in Mumbai and will end his career here no matter what.
After coming back to Mumbai, Sarfaraz worked hard on his fitness and played a lot of local and club matches. He cut down on oil, sugar and white flour.
"Kabhi kabaar ho jaata hai par aap fitness karo to compensate ho jaata hai (Sometimes you do end up having them but if you take care of fitness then it compensates), " he quips.
All through this, his unrelenting father was his source of constant motivation. By using different tricks, he used to cajole his son into taking the field day in day out.
"My father doesn’t have a finish line," Sarfaraz says in a light-hearted tone.
"His thinking is different. Unki thinking itni mahaan hai ki wo humko yeda banake mehenat karva lete hai. (He has such a great mind that he makes us work harder by fooling us with different tricks).
“Whatever I have in this world is because of him," Sarfaraz gets emotional. "Sometimes I hate my dad but I love my dad because for me he is everything in this world.
"Even now when I am talking to you, I have pads strapped on both my legs. As soon as we finish, I will rush back to bat."
A stellar comeback
Sarfaraz hit the ground running after shifting to Mumbai. The runs started flowing in local matches. He impressed with his cameos for KXIP in the 2019 IPL. Later, with several Mumbai senior team players departing for India 'A' duties, a rare opportunity popped up.
Sarfaraz wasn't going to let it go this time. He started off with an impressive unbeaten knock of 71 against Karnataka in tricky conditions at the Bandra Kurla Complex Ground in Mumbai. He then scored his first first-class century for Mumbai which he converted into a triple (301*), against UP at the Wankhede Stadium. He followed up with another unbeaten innings of 226 against Himachal Pradesh. The runs kept flowing (78 and 25 vs Saurashtra; 177 and six against MP). Records were shattered as he kept bailing Mumbai out of precarious situations. Putting those Mumbai whites back on for the first time was a special feeling.
“Woh ek completely different feeling hoti hai Sher pehen ke 100 karne me (it's a different feeling scoring a century wearing Lion crest Mumbai whites).
“When I completed that 100th run (against UP), I didn't understand what was happening. It only sank in when I looked at the newspapers with my picture lifting the bat in that lion crest jersey. I just wanted to keep staring at that picture again and again."
Sarfaraz had left Mumbai for UP with moist eyes and now he was back with a smile wearing that lion-crested jersey, which is now carefully placed in his wardrobe.
"When I was leaving for UP, I didn't think I would be able to don that Mumbai shirt again. Mumbai was very close to my heart but it was my father's decision. So I got emotional and the tears trickled down. But then I came back, hit 100, then 200 and 300 as well, it was the best moment of my life."
While Sarfaraz reminded the world about his precocious talent, his patience stood out in the domestic season. It was the byproduct of the hours spent leaving and defending the swinging and seaming ball in the cooling-off period.
On a 20-yard wicket at his home nets in Mumbai, Naushad would bowl side-arm with a synthetic ball on astro turf wicket at speed. And Sarfaraz would practice leaving and defending. "Visualising that I was actually out in the middle playing a Ranji match."
Sarfaraz had this habit of scoring daddy hundreds right from his school days. In fact, he first sprung into limelight as a 12-year-old when he broke the record for the highest score in Harris Shield by scoring 439 playing for Rizvi Springfield against Indian Education Society. So, the patience was there, it was just about honing the skill further and getting consistent opportunities.
A changed Sarfaraz
A turbulent journey and the struggle from a very young age have instilled steel into Sarfaraz' mind. It has made him mentally stronger which reflected in his performances in the 2019-20 domestic season.
"Life me itna uppar neeche ho chuka tha ki ab life me baar baar yehi repeat hota hai, ya to insaan run score karta hai aur khush hota hai ya to wo flop rehta hai, to ye sab cheez baar baar ho chuki thi aur mentally bohot strong ho chuka tha. Uske baad maine yehi soch liya tha ki jitna ho sake utna cricket pe mehenat karna hai. (There were so many ups and downs in my life. Either a person scores runs and gets happy or he flops and it had happened over and over in my life which made me mentally stronger. I had made up my mind that I will work as hard as possible on my cricket)."
The rigours of life have also instilled important realisations. It has made him independent and self-driven.
"A person’s thinking changes as time progresses. When I was small, I didn't know people that well, I was a 24-hour in-house guy whose world revolved around his dad and a few teammates. But I learnt a lot through my travels in UP."
"Over the past one or two years, I have become self driven, Since the time there was a question mark on my career, I work hard on my own. Have seen the Hindi film Sanju? There was a question mark whether Sanju was finished. (It appeared as a newspaper headline in the film). Earlier, I used to work hard par but without basic understanding. I didn't put in my own effort, it used to be all my father's. My father had to tell me to work hard, but now he has to tell me to stop.
Yes, the comeback has been impressive but a reinvigorated Sarfaraz is not looking too far ahead. He isn't targeting a specific tournament or eyeing national colours, he just wants to score runs, whether it be a club match or Ranji game.
Life will oscillate between successes and failures but there should be one constant thing in Sarfaraz's life going forward.
"Whether I progress well in life or not, when I look back, I shouldn't feel that I had taken short cuts or I had fallen short with my effort somewhere."
Sarfaraz 2.0 has taken flight, in the hope of soaring even higher this time.
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