At the tender age of 17, a young Sarfaraz Khan had the world at his feet. However, with time, the Mumbai lad has realised that there is no substitute for hard work. Although he had a limited role to play in Mumbai's emphatic triumph, the youngster had surely earned his stripes to be at the podium with his teammates.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Sarfaraz Khan opened up on his learnings from the lows of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy to the highs of the Vijay Hazare Trophy win. The 23-year-old also spoke about his days at Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), his future goals with Punjab Kings (PBKS), and much more.
Sarfaraz Khan on Mumbai's Vijay Hazare Trophy triumph
Mumbai probably had their worst Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy campaign ever, as they finished bottom of their group, with four losses in five games. Despite having stellar names in their ranks, the domestic giants suffered a humiliating exit.
Former Mumbai and India all-rounder Ramesh Powar was given the responsibility to rejuvenate the team's fortunes. The move worked wonders as Mumbai, who just a month ago couldn't seem to find a way to win, went unbeaten throughout their Vijay Hazare Trophy campaign.
Sarfaraz Khan was quick to acknowledge Powar for the work he has done as a head coach in reinstating Mumbai as a dominant force in domestic cricket. The 23-year-old believes luck didn't go Mumbai's way in the T20 format but was ecstatic with the way the team bounced back in the Vijay Hazare Trophy.
"First and foremost, the credit of the Vijay Hazare Trophy Triumph goes to our coach Ramesh Powar sir and the entire Mumbai team. Powar sir is a very positive coach, and he focuses more on the process, so that was beneficial. Although we lost in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, our team wasn’t that bad. It was just that we didn't have luck on our side. Except 2-4 players, the entire team was the same for this tournament. Mumbai losing 4-5 matches in a row is not that easy to accept. Also the game in the shortest format is so unpredictable," Sarfaraz Khan explained.
Stand-in Mumbai captain Prithvi Shaw was on fire, amassing a record 827 runs in just eight games at a fabulous average of 165.4; he also scored a double century. Fast bowler Dhawal Kulkarni continued to be 'Mr. Consistent' for Mumbai, picking up 14 wickets in six games at a low economy of 3.72.
Others like Suryakumar Yadav and Shreyas Iyer, who had to leave midway through the tournament for national duty, also played their part in the league phase. Sarfaraz Khan also hailed the contribution of every team member, terming Mumbai's fourth Vijay Hazare Trophy win as a complete team effort.
"This time, everyone chipped in with performances, be it Prithvi Shaw, Suryakumar Yadav, Shreyas Iyer,and even Dhawal Kulkarni. There were a few youngsters too like Prashant Solanki. So we learned a great lesson that if we play with unity, we will be successful. Everyone played their role to perfection and that helped us win the tournament."
Sarfaraz Khan opens up on his time at RCB
Sarfaraz Khan had grabbed eyeballs in junior cricket, where he made a name for himself with his fearless batting. Naturally, he attracted a lot of attention from various franchises during the IPL 2015 auction.
It was RCB who snapped up the young sensation for INR 50 lakhs. The 17-year-old then became the youngest player to feature in the IPL.
Sarfaraz Khan only had his father Naushad Khan to thank, as he believes it is him who has played a huge role in making the youngster a professional player.
"All the credit goes to dad only. Whatever I am today is because of him. I debuted in the IPL when I was 16-17 years old, and I was a bit nervous since no one had played on such a big stage at such a young age. But my dad always made me practice hard, and there were other players like Kamran Khan and Iqbal Abdullah who played the IPL through my dad’s coaching. So I had the hang of facing IPL-level bowlers," Sarfaraz Khan said.
Sarfaraz Khan also got nostalgic about sharing the dressing room at such a young age with legends like Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle. The Universe Boss has formed a great bond with the youngster at RCB and is still his teammate at Punjab Kings. Sarfaraz Khan said in this regard:
"I had a great time at RCB for how much ever long I was at that franchise. I got a lot to learn from Virat bhai, AB de Villiers, Chris Gayle who is still with me at Punjab Kings. That was probably the best time of my life so far; I enjoyed it a lot. I have been friends with Chris Gayle since our time at RCB. Gamewise there cannot be any comparison between us because he is too strong and powerfu,l while I am dependant a lot on my technique and on grounded or scoop shots. The way they carry themselves, the way they don’t put too much pressure on themselves even when they get out, the way they enjoy cricket is something I have admired."
Ahead of the mega IPL auction in 2018, RCB had to retain three players. Given the success of someone like KL Rahul in their 2016 campaign where they made it to the final, many expected the Bengaluru batsman to be the third name retained alongside Kohli and De Villiers.
However, RCB raised a few eyebrows when Sarfaraz Khan was named as the uncapped retention. The youngster himself couldn't believe that he was retained ahead of other stalwarts.
"There used to be talks that I could be retained. I was the only uncapped player among the three to be retained. So yes, I was a bit shocked when the management told me that I was retained. But the expectations I had from myself had increased drastically that year," Sarfaraz Khan reckoned.
After impressing in the first couple of seasons with some delightful cameos, Sarfaraz Khan was assigned the role of the main finisher for RCB.
The Kohli-led team has always been termed as a top-heavy batting lineup. Thus, it was crucial for the youngster to be consistent in the middle order.
However, things didn't go to plan, as Sarfaraz Khan scored just 51 runs from seven games at a poor average of 10.2 and a below-par strike-rate of 124.39. He was eventually released by the franchise ahead of the next season.
While Sarfaraz Khan accepted that the role of a finisher is not an easy one, he had no hard feelings for the way RCB released him just a season after they showed so much faith in his abilities.
The 23-year-old understood that this was just part and parcel of the sport as he thanked RCB for giving him a chance to express himself.
He said in this regard:
"It is not at all easy to slog the ball coming to you at a speed of 145-150 kmph. Even legends like MS Dhoni say that the role of a finisher is not that easy. He has probably been the only successful no. 6 in recent times. So sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And it is but natural for a player to be snapped up by another team depending on their requirements, so this will keep on happening. So I would thank RCB for giving me a chance despite me being so young."
Sarfaraz Khan, the underrated all-rounder
Not many would know that apart from being a dynamic batsman, Sarfaraz Khan also feels he can be a handy leg-spinner.
The 23-year-old stated that he does take his bowling pretty seriously and has also bowled in the U19 World Cup. He aspires to become a utility all-rounder for his team and stand up in crunch situations.
"I have been bowling for a while. I think I haven’t got enough opportunities to bowl till now. I feel I can grab whatever opportunities come my way, like I did with Mumbai in the limited red-ball chances I got with the bat. So I bowl regularly, and I am serious about my bowling. It is not that I haven’t bowled at all. I have bowled in the U19 World Cup, where I picked up a wicket too. So I hope I'll get an opportunity somewhere, and I wish to become a good all-rounder," Sarfaraz Khan revealed.
Sarfaraz Khan's breakout 2019-20 Ranji Trophy season
Mumbai, who have won the Ranji Trophy a record 41 times, didn't have a great 2019-20 season. A number of first-team regulars were either on national duty or on 'A' tours. That is when Sarfaraz Khan, who was widely considered as a white-ball specialist, grabbed his opportunity and came of age.
In just nine innings, the then 22-year-old scored a mind-boggling 928 runs at a stupendous average of 154.66. His incredible season was marked with a triple hundred against Uttar Pradesh, followed by a double century against Himachal Pradesh. He ended his phenomenal campaign with an unbeaten 177 against Madhya Pradesh.
Sarfaraz Khan thanked the Mumbai team for giving him an opportunity to play Ranji Trophy cricket after returning from Uttar Pradesh. He reckons he has made great use of his cooling-off period by working on his mistakes as a batsman.
A change in mindset is what has worked wonders for the youngster. He said in this regard:
"When I returned to Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh, I knew I had to go through a cooling-off period. But I was fine with it, and I decided to work hard because it is never easy to get into a strong Mumbai team. I would like to thank the MCA members and the Mumbai coaching staff for giving me the opportunity to represent the Mumbai senior team. Technique-wise, I didn’t do anything different. Just that I changed my mindset and was focussing on every ball that came my way in the training session. I used to watch my videos and tried to understand where I was going wrong. In my cooling-off period, I got a lot of time to sit back and reflect on my game and how I could improve it."
With such an incredible Ranji Trophy campaign under his belt, Sarfaraz Khan was set to explode in red-ball cricket. However, there hasn't been any competitive red-ball cricket for almost a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nevertheless, instead of getting frustrated, the 23-year-old has learnt to accept things that are not in his control. He is, however, ready to cash in on the chances he gets in the future.
"Well you can say that (COVID-19 pandemic came at a wrong time in my career). When I was batting well in the Ranji Trophy and had about 1000 runs in 5-6 games, I could have got chances in Deodhar Trophy or even in India A and would have been fast-tracked further. But can’t help since some things are not in anyone’s control. Whatever is written in my destiny will happen. If I am destined to play at the highest level, I will. But if I am not, no matter how hard I try, I won’t reach that level," Sarfaraz Khan asserted.
Sarfaraz Khan on his time at Punjab Kings and their chances in IPL 2021
The Kings XI Punjab (KXIP, now PBKS) had a roller-coaster of a season last year. Under a new-captain, KL Rahul, and a new team management comprising of Indian legend Anil Kumble at the helm, great things were expected from the franchise.
However, they lost six of their first seven games in IPL 2020, with many of them being close clashes that could have gone either way. Sarfaraz Khan didn't have a great season individually, as he scored a meagre 33 runs in five games.
Although he was dropped from the side last year, Sarfaraz Khan isn't taking too much pressure on himself. He believes that an opportunity to make a mark will come his way in the near future.
The youngster feels KXIP played good cricket and were just unlucky to miss out on the playoffs. With new acquisitions like Jhye Richardson and Riley Meredith in the pace department this year, Punjab Kings could have a successful IPL 2021 season. Sarfaraz Khan said in this regard:
"I think not having the pressure of expectations would work well for me. I am not thinking much, just focusing on my practice and the process. If an opportunity comes my way, I will be ready to give my hundred percent. After quarantine ends, my role will be told in the meeting. So I will prepare accordingly. As far as the team is concerned, we have got a great team; there are some exciting fast bowlers that have been added in our ranks. Last year, we lost close matches, so it was not that we played horribly. We probably didn’t have luck going our way, but hopefully everything will be fine".