A teary-eyed Sarfaraz Khan was packing his bags to move from Mumbai to Uttar Pradesh before the 2015-16 season. Having spent all his childhood in Mumbai, Sarfaraz, barely 18 at the time, wasn't pleased at all with his father's decision about the move for better opportunities. But his father, Naushad Khan, is also his coach and mentor, and once Naushad takes a decision, Sarfaraz doesn't counter it.
Sarfaraz had already played Under-14 and 16 for Mumbai, made his first-class debut, and had started dreaming about scoring centuries for the senior Mumbai side. Leaving his home city didn't make any sense to him.
"When I was packing all this to move to UP, and I don't know now why I decided to move to UP, one thing I was thinking about was that at Under-19 we were shown videos of some of the big players in the Mumbai Ranji shirt, either hitting centuries or lifting the trophy," Sarfaraz told ESPNcricinfo from his home, before the IPL started this year. "It was my dream to hit a century wearing the Mumbai Ranji shirt. So when I was packing all that, I was crying while thinking, 'what will happen to my future now, how will things work out for me in UP' etc."
Sarfaraz soothed his nerves by scoring a scintillating 155 on his UP debut but he ended up playing only three Ranji games that season because he was part of the India Under-19 squad and there was a World Cup coming up in early 2016. UP, meanwhile, didn't make the Ranji knockouts that season, and agonisingly for Sarfaraz, Mumbai, who hadn't won the title since 2012-13, lifted the trophy for the 41st time.
Sarfaraz felt like he would "never come back." The next season too, he played in only five of UP's eight games and averaged under 30 with just one half-century. By now he was frustrated. "I told my father: ab mereko nahi khelne ka hai idhar-udhar se, ab khelunga to Mumbai se warna main cricket chhod doonga (I don't want to play for any other team anymore, if I play cricket, it will be for Mumbai). And home is home. We all make mistakes and sometimes you take such decisions [of switching teams], and it feels bad till now. There I was scoring 60, 70 kind of scores so I thought I need to score big and I returned to Mumbai."
Returning wasn't as straightforward though. As per the BCCI's rules, he had to serve a cooling-off period of one year before he could play for Mumbai again, and Sarfaraz piled up plenty of runs during that period playing club cricket around the city. It was almost as if Sarfaraz was going back in time. Having played three Ranji seasons, two of the IPL, and all three formats in the domestic circuit, he was now back to club cricket.
In early 2020, he finally wore the Mumbai jersey again, after five long years. But against Karnataka in the first innings, he lasted just 20 balls for eight runs.
"After getting out, I felt like I would get dropped," Sarfaraz says.
When Mumbai batted again, Prtihvi Shaw picked up an injury, and the experienced top four of Aditya Tare, Ajinkya Rahane, Siddhesh Lad and captain Suryakumar Yadav fell before Mumbai had 30 on the board. Nervous already, Sarfaraz had the added responsibility of trying to retain his place, and he was in a tricky situation which made him shed off his natural attacking game.
"I thought that I would just stand there," Sarfaraz says while reminiscing his unbeaten 71 off 140, even if it came in a lost cause as the Karnataka quicks shared all nine wickets between them. "I had been working on my game against swing bowling for a while with my dad. I knew I could play it; I had the confidence. So I decided to stay at the wicket and get set. But the wicket was such that scoring big wasn't possible and we were losing wickets too. It was one of my best innings, it gave me a lot of confidence.
"In the Mumbai circuit you must constantly score because there are a lot of players who have scored a lot but they're on the bench. I didn't think that they would remove me from the team, I just knew I had to score, and I was hungry for runs after the cooling-off period."
"When I hit that triple-hundred, I was on 132 against UP [at the end of the third day], and I saw my photo in the paper the next day, that Ranji Trophy was written on my chest and I was celebrating my century. It got kind of addictive after that. It was my dream - lifting my bat and helmet in the Mumbai jersey - and that's not going to go anywhere. That motivates me a lot."
Like most addictions, this one has taken Sarfaraz to another level. A pandemic, a lockdown and a Ranji-less season of 2020-21 happened in between, but his hunger for big knocks did not dwindle. Before his 153 off 205, his seventh first-class hundred, in the ongoing quarter-final against Uttarakhand, he started this truncated Ranji season with a 275, followed by 63, 48 and 165 which helped Mumbai into the knockouts.
Sarfaraz is currently miles ahead of his contemporaries in terms of runs scored or batting average in the Ranji Trophy since his return to Mumbai. He has over 1600 runs in 14 innings, while the next best is 1158; his average is nearly 150; and he has a staggering strike rate of over 75 with a monstrous number of boundaries, 184 fours and 35 sixes.
Sarfaraz, 24 now, and his streak of big scores doesn't come down only to his appetite for runs, his love for Mumbai and how he has worked on his fitness to lose weight. When Sarfaraz was a teenager, Naushad once saw his son looking clueless against swing and fast bowling, helped by dew in an early-morning session in Mumbai. The reason? Naushad had until then taken his son for batting practice only in the evenings.
The very next day, Naushad changed things around and kept Sarfaraz's batting sessions at Cross Maidan, in south Mumbai, in mornings. He also laid a turf pitch in front of their ground floor home where he would make Sarfaraz first water the pitch in the evening and then make him bat against the moving ball. Apart from creating hostile conditions, Naushad also taught Sarfaraz a few things about technique and temperament.
"Like not to attack needlessly, not to throw my wicket away, defending for two hours non-stop in the nets," Sarfaraz recalls his learnings. "I'm an attacking player but when an attacking player develops some patience, he can become really dangerous. There was still some problem in my technique, but my father and I worked on that a lot. So I learnt to stay on the wicket and knowing exactly where my off stump is in red-ball cricket.
"I would play 600-700 balls every day at Cross Maidan and at home combined, especially against the swinging ball. If T20s are coming up then I just hit out in the nets, like playing the cut and pull. For day's cricket [first-class games], I would focus on leaving the ball because once you see through the first hour or so, you can get going and nobody can stop an attacking batsman like me.
"It's [the pitch at home] the toughest wicket I practice on. After playing in such places when I go for matches, I don't find it so difficult because this practice I go through is really tough - it has bounce, speed, swing, cut, dampness, everything."
Sarfaraz's return to home also partially coincided with the start of the pandemic. In March 2020, when Sarfaraz was in Madhya Pradesh for a club game after the Ranji season, Naushad sensed the government was going to impose a lockdown. He wiped the dust off his SUV, drew down to MP with his other son, Musheer, to pick up Sarfaraz, and drove them all over UP during the lockdown to make them train on fields and farms for 400-600 balls per day while the whole world was shutting down.
Reaping the benefits of years of hard work is reflecting in his performances now, Sarfaraz says, as he continues to score runs by buckets against the red ball. The rest he leaves to destiny.
"People would earlier think that Sarfaraz is just a white-ball player because I had been playing Under-19 World Cups and IPL, nobody counted me as a red-ball player," he says. "But I knew that if I get the opportunities, then I can perform because for four-five years I had been working hard continuously.
"My job is to make runs. I have a lot of confidence in myself that I can keep scoring in Ranji Trophy. If I work more with my father, I can score even more. I never go out to bat thinking I've to score 200 or 300. I think about the team first, what is required from me. I go out and play like four overs of each bowler, understand their bowling and once the sun comes out and they have their lunch, then I change my game."
"I believe a lot in destiny. Even if I get out for ducks, I don't stress about it; I focus on working hard. If it's written in my destiny [to do well], nobody can take it away from me."
For similar reasons, Sarfaraz is currently not thinking too much about an India call-up and merely making the most of wearing the Mumbai jersey and scoring centuries in the Ranji Trophy.