'They used to call me panda, now they've started calling me macho'

Sarfaraz Khan talks about leaving Mumbai and coming back, his relationship with his father-slash-coach, and on fighting perceptions

Sarfaraz Khan roars after hitting a century  •  PTI

Sarfaraz Khan roars after hitting a century  •  PTI

Sarfaraz Khan is only 22, but has been around the fringes of domestic cricket for half a decade. Many thought he would be the next boy wonder, but his perceived lack of fitness set him back. Then, he switched from Mumbai to Uttar Pradesh for "better opportunities", only to see his career stall. Then, injuries set him back by a year.
Now, having spent a cooling-off period upon his return to Mumbai, a fitter Sarfaraz is looking to once again make a mark for the 41-time champions. Fresh off a triple century in his previous outing against Uttar Pradesh - it was only his second first-class century - Sarfaraz spoke to ESPNcricinfo about time spent on the fringes, the dream of playing for Mumbai again, the improvements he's had to make and much more. Excerpts:
How does it feel to be playing for Mumbai again?
It's a proud feeling to return and also join Mumbai's triple-century club, alongside great players like Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Wasim Jaffer and Rohit Sharma. I'm a little relieved, more than delighted, because my season started late. I didn't get opportunities in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and very few chances at the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. There was this fear in my mind that half the season had finished and I hadn't yet made any kind of impact. So this triple century came at the right time.
Did you fear you may not get match time again this season?
I was left out of the Baroda game,. Then before the second game, I was sent to play for Mumbai Under-23, where I made 40 in the first innings and a century in the second. Then I came back for the Karnataka game. Making 71 not out in the second innings against a quality attack gave me the self-belief again, because how much ever you are confident, unless you have scores to back it up, it won't help. Coming into the previous game, I knew the Uttar Pradesh players well, since I've played with many of them. So scoring against them and more importantly helping Mumbai get a lead was very satisfying.
How did you channel the frustration of sitting out during the cooling off period in Mumbai?
The last two years have been very frustrating. There were a lot of question marks over me. I was asking questions of myself. I won't lie. Everyone thought I was only a white-ball player. Deep down, I knew I was a good enough red-ball player too, but I didn't have too many opportunities to prove it. One season, I sat out in Uttar Pradesh. Then I had to serve out a cooling-off period in Mumbai, so I used the time to work on my game.
I used to play on seaming wickets, my father kept hurling balls at me and I was only focused on leaving the ball. Earlier, I used to instinctively play the upper cut to short balls even if there was third man. It became a habit. But I tried cutting out all these aspects to discipline my game. In the game against Uttar Pradesh, there were times when they kept bowling short balls. The old me would've tried to ramp the ball. Here, I kept ducking under it because the situation demanded.
Do you look back and regret the decision to move to Uttar Pradesh in 2015?
Leaving Mumbai was a bad decision. It wasn't mine, but my father's. At that age, you aren't matured enough to think of circumstances or look at things in a different way. Dad felt that was the best way forward for me. There's no point looking back at why I made the move. But when I moved, I kept having this thought: 'will I ever play for Mumbai again?'. Because I had played all age-group cricket here, represented India at the Under-19 World Cup in 2014 because of my performances for Mumbai. But I felt like an outsider, I didn't get chances. There were perceptions around me. I couldn't help it.
What about the decision to come back to Mumbai?
Quitting Uttar Pradesh and coming back was entirely my call. Of course we discussed the pros and cons, I decided if I had to serve out some time, I better do it now than later. Some people said, 'maybe it's not the right call, because if you so wanted to come back, you would've never left in the first place'. I'm glad I took the call. It hasn't been easy even after coming back, but I'm enjoying the feeling again of playing for Mumbai. That crest and cap, I had safely kept it away in a store room when I left for Uttar Pradesh. It was a proud feeling to wear it once again the moment I was eligible to play again.
When did you realise you had to work hard on your fitness?
I was dropped at Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in 2016 because of my fitness. Virat Kohli told me straightaway while there were no doubts over my skills, my fitness was not letting me get to the next level. He was very honest with me about where I was. See, I used to sleep in Azad Maidaan, and since 10-11 years old, all I knew about cricket was just batting and bowling. I really had no idea about fitness until I came in to the Under-19 level. I was very low, my dad was also low. But I was still retained by RCB in 2018. At that time, I felt like being in the same team as Virat bhai and AB de Villiers was my life's biggest achievement. I didn't realise there was so much more to do.
When I think of it now, the ACL injury in 2017 changed my outlook towards fitness. I knew that is when I had to get fitter. So I started working out, running, doing a lot of cardio. I gave up sweets and tried to improve my eating habits. I won't say I became obsessed with fitness, but I just made small changes to my diet. If I had two portions of something, I changed it to one portion, and gradually cut down on my intake of junk food. I didn't get too obsessed with just fitness because sometimes you can let it affect you so much that you forget about batting and bowling.
How has your improved fitness helped you now?
Even in the last game against Uttar Pradesh, there were stages after 250 where I was cramping up. But I continued to bat on. I had some fever too. I didn't give up, even though at times I had the thought of coming off. I fielded for two days and then batted for two days. I felt good not just about my improved fitness but because it helped me score runs and get a lead. At one point, all my team-mates used to call me 'panda' because I used to eat a lot. Now, they've started calling me 'macho'. Actually, very few people know it's my nickname now.
When anyone talks about you, it's always in connection with your father who is also your coach. What are your interests outside of cricket?
My dad is 97% my coach and just 3% my father. When I'm at home, he's discussing cricket with me. When I'm at the ground, it's cricket anyway. So right from my young age, cricket has been the only thing. I don't go out much. It's like a military life sometimes, but I'm used to it now. I have lost a bit of time, for whatever reason, now I want to make up for it.
When you have a bad day, you don't want to be thinking cricket
My dad's mindset is if you get out or have had a bad day, you can't think about something else, rather, you should think more about the game. I used to play at John Bright Cricket Club while growing up. Sometimes have three sessions a day. My dad didn't want me to commute and waste time in traffic, so I slept at the ground. There was a change room and shower, so he used to get me my kit and clothes, I used to shower there and get ready. This used to be my schedule for two months at a stretch during the summer. These days, my dad is focused more on my younger brother Musheer. He feels I'm matured now, so he has let me off the hook at times. (laughs)
From being retention material at RCB to working your way up at Kings XI Punjab last IPL, what were your challenges?
Being released from RCB hurt me in a way, but I couldn't do much about it. I had one of the best IPLs so far with Kings XI Punjab last year. I was in the midst of my cooling-off period, so I knew that was my only chance to impress. Against an attack of Jofra Archer, Ben Stokes and Jaydev Unadkat, I was pleased to make 46 not out. Against Chennai Super Kings, I made 67. I made a crucial 39 against Delhi Capitals. In terms of knocks, I was scoring whenever I had the chance, even if they were just small contributions. That boosted my morale.
How do you plan forward, now that you're back playing for Mumbai?
No goals, really. [When] you look for something and when it doesn't happen, you feel disappointed. I just want to work hard, train, keep fit and score runs whenever the opportunities come. I've stopped overthinking or having high expectations. I want to make up for lost time and do well wherever a chance comes.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo