Sarfaraz sweeps away the pressure
In any match involving India and Pakistan, be it at the senior or Under-19 level, pressure and increased expectations are inevitable. Sarfaraz Khan had played against Pakistan before, but on this occasion, there were many more eyeballs watching his every move. For this may have been the first time a worldwide television audience had its glimpse of the promising 16-year-old batting allrounder from Mumbai. The crowd was significantly bigger in Dubai compared to the opening day, given that this was the most anticipated clash in the World Cup's group stages. Sarfaraz didn't let stage fright get to him, either on the field or off it.
Having scored 74 in a rescue mission, taken a wicket and grabbed four catches, the job for the Man of the Match adjudicators was ridiculously simple. Having fronted up to the television cameras at the presentation, he then had the spotlight on him in front of the media. Insisting that he speak in the language of his choice, Hindi, he cut a confident figure on the podium, visibly pepped up by his all-round show against the arch-rivals. He didn't need a coach or manager by his side for moral support.
Even at 16, Sarfaraz can say a thing or two about handling pressure and expectations. His father, Naushad, is also his coach and a hard taskmaster. He has stopped at nothing in making sure his son plays for the country, like installing a synthetic pitch near their house so Sarfaraz can devote most of his time to practice. His showing today would have made any parent proud.
Sarfaraz walked in with his team in trouble at 94 for 4 in the 20th over and joined Sanju Samson, who was batting on 15. Sarfaraz looked ill at ease against the spinners initially, beaten in flight by a googly from the legspinner Karamat Ali. An edge was fluffed at slip even before he opened his account. After 15 scoreless deliveries, he banked on his favourite shot - the sweep - and smartly negated the spinners. Young Indian batsmen are not renowned for employing the sweep regularly, but Sarfaraz played it compulsively. His education on batting in turning tracks in Mumbai's Azad Maidan was clearly paying off.
"I read that it turns a lot here and the ball keeps low," Sarfaraz said. "So I was not able to play straight and that's why I could not score runs. And then when my catch was dropped, I decided to bat freely. Since the sweep is one of my favourite shots, I was confident about it and I went for it. As I started reading the wicket, I started growing in confidence."
Sarfaraz and Samson batted in different styles during their match-turning 119-run fifth-wicket stand. Samson was more passive compared to his partner, pushing the singles. It was a mature approach from the two since there wasn't a great deal of batting to come.
"Sanju and me were talking after each over and telling ourselves to bat deep into the innings. After us, there was only Deepak Hooda [who could bat]," Sarfaraz said. "Sanju was sharing his IPL experience with me and I was playing accordingly. It is fun playing with Sanju."
Despite his slow start, Sarfaraz had motored to his fifty off only 60 balls, throwing the Pakistan spinners off-guard. When he departed for 74 off 78 balls, India were looking at a total of over 250 and given their spin options, it was always going to be hard work for Pakistan.
And Sarfaraz was one of those spin options. He is a versatile spinner, in that he bowls offspin to left-handers and legspin to right-handers. Given that the top four in the Pakistan line-up bat left-handed, the choice was easy.
Though he only bowled three overs, he managed to pick up a wicket, bowling Hasan Raza, who stayed back to a fuller ball. Sarfaraz was everywhere in the field, taking four catches. His first catch broke Pakistan's opening stand of 109. It was the breakthrough India needed, just when Pakistan were consolidating their position in the chase.
Luck was still by Sarfaraz's side during the bizarre run out of Kamran Ghulam. He stood near the bowler's stumps looking to collect the throw from Deepak Hooda but accidentally knocked the stump with his elbow, dislodging a bail. Fortunately, Hooda's throw was on target and the ball knocked down the other bail, with Ghulam well short of the crease. "Thankfully, one bail was there," Sarfaraz said with a smile. "Or else the coach would have reprimanded me."
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo