It is a typically hot January afternoon at Azad Maidan, one of the arteries supplying talent to Mumbai cricket. Most of the cricket is being played in whites and with red balls. Except for a group of young boys playing a fiercely competitive white-ball match in coloured clothing in a corner of the ground.
The idea is not to draw attention but to help Sarfaraz Khan, the most famous of the current lot from Macho Cricket Club, with a simulation exercise as he prepares for the sternest test of his bright career in junior cricket. In a matter of days, Sarfaraz will fly down to Bangalore for the preparatory camp, and then leave with his India team-mates for the UAE to defend the Under-19 World Cup title.
As much as you notice Sarfaraz's footwork and his robust power, you can't ignore a chubby figure constantly advising him from the sidelines. Naushad Khan, his father and coach, knows Sarfaraz and his cricket as much as, if not more than, the allrounder himself. As much as this is about Sarfaraz's topsy-turvy ride in the early days of what could well be a long journey, it is a tale of Naushad's struggle as well.
Naushad's club is situated in the John Bright tent in the maidan. Sarfaraz used to sleep in it as his father played, with a ring of kit bags around him to protect him from being hit by a ball. It was natural for the toddler to take up cricket. Once his father spotted his ability to "time the ball" at an early age, their journey began.
Whenever Naushad made a trip to his native town of Azamgarh of Uttar Pradesh, he would return with a bunch of talented young cricketers, whom he treated like his own children. Around when Sarfaraz had begun to make a mark in practice matches at Azad Maidan, he saw one of those Azamgarh kids, Iqbal Abdulla, bring home the U-19 World Cup in 2008. Soon, he was to witness a public spat between coach Naushad and his protégé Abdulla, which resulted in the two parting ways forever.
The first real display of Sarfaraz's talent came when he scored a record 439 in his maiden Harris Shield (inter-school tournament) game in 2009. There was no looking back from there for this right-hand batsman who has now also evolved into a reliable legspinner. There have been setbacks, though.
The Mumbai Cricket Association suspended him on charges of fudging his age, before eventually accepting the results of an advanced test. Just as he was recovering from the blow and getting back into run-scoring mode, the MCA's indoor academy dismissed him from a camp on "disciplinary grounds".
"That was the toughest phase for us," Naushad, 43, says. "There was a time when the constant criticism started getting to him and the kid just wanted to give up. It was then that I had to constantly remind him of our biggest goal: to play international cricket. It took him time to realise it but once he did, he knew that such small battles will have to be overcome for achieving the real thing."
Soon a trademark couplet arrives. "Kambakht ye aansoon bhi ek pareshaani hai / Gam aur khushi dono ki nishaani hai / Samajhne waalon ke liye anmol, naa samajhne waalon ke liye paani hai [Tears are signs of both sorrow and joy / To those who understand their worth, they are priceless; to those who don't they are but drops of water.]"
"Naushad is with Sarfaraz at home, he travels with him, he coaches him, he is always in his ear. You wonder if it is Naushad's dream that Sarfaraz is supposed to live"
Once Sarfaraz became "mentally strong", he took his game to the next level and started performing consistently in the big boys' league. An exceptional season for Mumbai U-19 team helped him earn a call-up for the India U-19 quadrangular series in Visakhapatnam last year. Sarfaraz showed his mettle there by scoring a match-winning 66-ball 101 while chasing a target of 292 against South Africa. From then on he has been a regular in all the U-19 team's matches and camps leading into the World Cup.
All this wouldn't have been possible without his father's constant support. Naushad, a former club cricketer who is employed with Western Railways, gave Sarfaraz all the support he could - at Azad Maidan and at home. Travelling to the maidan from their home in Kurla, a central suburb about an hour away, was tedious, especially during the monsoon. To get around it, Naushad installed a synthetic pitch in a courtyard opposite his house last year.
"Not only does it save our time and energy but it has also helped him get used to bouncier wickets that he will have to deal with later on," Naushad says.
It's not just cricket that the father is concerned about. Because Sarfaraz has hardly been able to attend school for the last four years, Naushad has employed a private maths and English tutor for him and his youngest brother, Musheer, who last year broke Sarfaraz's record for the youngest club debut in Mumbai.
How much is too much, though? Naushad is with Sarfaraz at home, he travels with him, he coaches him, he is always in his ear. You wonder if it is Naushad's dream that Sarfaraz is supposed to live. If at some point the father - always "coach" at a cricket ground - wants to prove a point to those he feels betrayed him. Is he pushing the kid too much? Does the boy really want to do this? Will he run out of steam too early?
"It may seem over the top from a distance, but sometimes the additional push is required to not let him distract from the main goal," Naushad says. "After whatever he has seen at such a young age, he keeps on saying he wants to do it for me. After all, he has seen all those whom his father helped distance themselves from him once they achieved fame."
Naushad says when he got the likes of Abdulla and Kamran Khan to Mumbai to pursue cricket, it was only because he believed in cricket having no boundaries. "Heere ko taraashna hai, chaahe woh yahaan ka ho yaa aur kahin ka [A diamond has to be polished, no matter its origins]," he says. With Sarfaraz and Musheer excelling on the field, Naushad is not making as many trips to Azamgarh as before. He is busy polishing two of his most precious diamonds.