Taking cricket world by storm in his own unorthodox way: Journey of India's T20 sensation Sarfaraz Khan
When an 18-year-old batsman took the likes of James Faulkner, Tim Southee and other Rajasthan Royals bowlers to the cleaners with an excellent display of T20 batting, Royal Challengers Bangalore skipper Virat Kohli welcomed the young prodigy by waiting at the boundary line and bowing down to him after the end of his team's innings.
In that innings, the batsmen played some orthodox cricket shots, along with some unorthodox ones, and set the stage on fire by scoring an unbeaten 45 off 21 balls with six fours and one six.
This is how Sarfaraz Khan burst onto the scene. He backed his debut IPL performance with some consistent batting in the following matches and made a name for himself as a future torchbearer of Indian batting.
But, his journey to the top started much earlier when he broke the record for the highest score in the Harris Shield inter-school tournament by scoring 439 off 421 balls with 56 boundaries and 12 sixes, all this as a 12-year-old in 2009.
Following that, he showed a lot of promise before he took the 2014 under-19 World Cup by storm. Though he finished third in the list of run scorers behind the likes of Sanju Samson and Deepak Hooda, the impact he had was more than the impact other batsmen had in the tournament. He scored 211 runs in six innings at an average of 70.33 and a strike-rate of over 105, the best by a batsman with at least 100 runs.
He was bought by Royal Challengers Bangalore soon after and he delivered in his very first match (against Royals) after getting a chance. He finished the season with 111 runs at an extraordinary strike rate of 156.33.
Sarfaraz became a household name and was instrumental for both RCB and India in the 2016 under-19 World Cup in which he scored 355 runs in six innings at an average of 71 and a strike-rate of 87. He also holds the record for scoring the most fifties in under-19 World Cups with seven across both the editions.
The youngster followed his 2016 under-19 World Cup success by scoring some runs for RCB before the toughest phase in his career hit him. He was dropped by skipper Kohli for being unfit as the skipper wanted someone who is fit and can save some runs in the field.
He worked on his fitness and looked raring to go ahead of the 2017 IPL as he had some runs under his belt for Uttar Pradesh in List A and T20 cricket. With KL Rahul missing the whole IPL and the likes of AB de Villiers and skipper Virat Kohli missing the initial matches, coach Daniel Vettori pinned his hopes on Sarfaraz to come good in the absence of his star players.
Unfortunately, the youngster injured his knee just before the start of the tournament and had to sit out of the T20 extravaganza because of the injury. He went under the knife and missed almost nine months of cricket.
Sarfaraz then regained full fitness and in his first competitive match after returning, he scored a brilliant century in a practice match against the Indian under-19 side before Prithvi Shaw and co. flew to New Zealand. A week later, he was retained by RCB ahead of the likes of Chris Gayle, KL Rahul, Yuzvendra Chahal etc. to play in the 2018 IPL.
The term T20 sensation is something that one would not associate with Indian cricket. But, the promise Sarfaraz has shown, it won't be a surprise if he becomes India's first T20 specialist.
Sportskeeda caught up with the 20-year-old and here are excerpts from the interview.
Q: When and why did you start playing cricket?
I started playing cricket when I was six-years-old. My dad used to play so that built up my interest.
Q: Did you get the support from your family when you took cricket as your career?
Because my family was from a cricket background, no one ever stopped me from playing the sport. They want me to cricket, so much so that on a few occasions I had to ask them for a day off.
Q: What has been the influence of your father in you becoming a professional cricketer?
Whatever I am now, it's all because of him. He has sacrificed a lot for me when I was young, after the operation as well if he were not there, I wouldn't have made it.
Q: Who inspired you to take up an attacking style of play with the bat?
When I started playing cricket, I used to watch Sachin Tendulkar play on TV, and when he played in Mumbai then I used to go there to watch him bat. He is my inspiration in Cricket.
Q: You are one of the rarest players in India who like to play 360-degree shots or the ramp shots. Where did you learn that from?
My dad was a cricketer and used to play a lot of tricky shots and while I was learning such shots from him, I was called up for the IPL. And because I was used to it, you saw me play all those shots in the IPL. My father is a master of it and he only taught me all these 360-degree shots.
Q: Were you expecting an IPL team to pick you ahead of the 2015 edition after your performances in the 2014 under-19 World Cup?
After playing the World Cup in Abu Dhabi, I was sitting at home when Avinash Vaidya sir called me and told that I have to go to Bangalore for RCB selection matches. I went there and played a couple of practice games with coach Daniel Vettori watching the proceedings. I did well but wasn't confident that I'll be selected for RCB. But, they showed confidence in me and picked me. I am grateful to them for that.
Q: How did your life change after getting picked in the IPL for the first time?
The 2014 under-19 World Cup, not the IPL, was the turning point of my career. Before the World Cup, my family and I were struggling. I didn't have good stuff for training, but my father tried his best to provide me all the facilities. That was before the World Cup, but after that, things changed for good.
Earlier, I used to travel by train for training, then my father used to drop me on a bike but he met with an accident. I had thought then that I'll buy a car for him once I become a professional. Then after playing in the under-19 World Cup, I bought one for him.
Q: You shared the dressing room with stars like AB de Villiers, Chris Gayle and Virat Kohli. What did you learn from them?
It was really good sharing a dressing room with them. I enjoyed a lot with Chris Gayle, he taught me a lot about the sport as well. But Virat bhai was even better, I learned quite a few things about cricket and fitness from him. So it was good playing and sharing the space with them.
Q: In spite of doing well in the 2016 IPL, you were dropped from the RCB side on fitness grounds. Now, you have become a bit fitter. What happened there?
In 2015, when I played my first season in the IPL, I had no idea on what fitness is. Then later, I was told how important being fit in T20 cricket is and Virat bhai gave a piece of his mind and introduced me to Shankar Basu sir, who helped me a lot in becoming fitter. So, I'm working on it and hopefully, I'll get better in the future.
Q: Why did you join Uttar Pradesh from Mumbai?
That was my family's decision, so I can't do anything about that.
Q: You have made a name for yourself as a T20 player. But, the same cannot be said about the first-class formats. Do you see yourself as a specialist T20 player?
I am actually a good player of the red ball. If you see, I've scored good runs in Mumbai's Times Shield matches, three-day, four-day matches as well. So, I think I'm good with the red ball also. Even in List A, I will score runs if I get set.
Before the Indian team left for the 2018 under-19 World Cup, I played against them in Bangalore, scored 100 runs in 90 balls and eventually ended up scoring 132.
After five days, I played in Mumbai in a Shield A division match. we were 10/3, then I scored 130 off around 140 balls. So it's not like I just want to play T20s.
Q: Recently, MSK Prasad hinted that there will be format specific teams in the future. Do you see yourself featuring in one of the teams, especially T20Is, in the near future?
See, I am not thinking about that. I'm trying to stay down to earth because if you get some fame and name, people talk about you a lot. I don't want that to happen. So, I just want to focus on my game and things will take care of themselves.
It was very good. Two years with Bharat Arun sir during the 2014 under-19 World Cup and then with Rahul Dravid sir during the 2016 under-19 World Cup, I learnt a lot from both of them.
Q: What are the areas you are looking to improve?
I don't think I have any weakness but I have to improve in every single aspect of the game.
Q: You are one of the very few Indian players to have played in two under-19 World Cups. You also hold the record for scoring most fifties in the tournament. How was the experience of playing in the tournament?
I should have scored two to three hundreds, but I was getting out in the 70s. I tried my best to contribute as much as possible for the team. The experience was good but if I had converted those 70s into 100s, would have been better and I might have been even considered for the India A side. But overall, considering the pressure and situation, I was happy with my performance.
Q: The 2018 under-19 World Cup is just over a week away and you have played with the guys before they left for New Zealand. What do you think of the current lot? Can they bring the cup back to India?
Yes, we have a very good team. I played against them and we have a good fast bowling department. The three bowlers we have (Ishan Porel, Kamlesh Nagarkoti and Shubham Mavi) are bowling 140+ and are very impressive. Bowling is our strength and we have a good batting department. So, I think we can win the World Cup easily.
Q: Why do your teammates call you "Panda"?
*Laughs* Chris Gayle started calling me Panda. That's how others started calling me that. I don't know about the reason behind that name.
Additional input by Sankalp Srivastava