|SOCIETY & LIFESTYLE
A prodigy gets his act together, watching Tendulkar
Tehelka spends a day with a 13-year-old talent to see how the World Cup is shaping the next big thing
Nikhil M Ghanekar
Photos: Tushar Mane
In Kurla (West), Mumbai, Sarfaraz Khan is slouching against a double bed at his home. He is tired and dozing off. Beside him, Naushad Khan, his father, watches keenly on television as an in-form Yuvraj Singh guides a full-length ball from Shaun Tait past the first slip for four. It’s the climactic, taut moments of the India versus Australia Cricket World Cup quarter-final at the Motera in Ahmedabad.
As India inch closer to a mighty victory against the defending World Champions, Sarfaraz is fully asleep.
The next day, he does not want to discuss how thrilling the match was or even show-off every statistic known to him about Sachin Tendulkar.
The next day, or rather every day of his life, he wants to be Sachin Tendulkar. Which is why, Sarfaraz Khan is sleeping, partly dreaming of plundering bowlers in a fashion similar to Tendulkar and partly preparing for the rigorous training and match he has to play in Lonavala the next day. He is resting his mind and body for this.
Sarfaraz Khan, born 22 October 1997, is no ordinary kid on the block. Named after the pioneer of reverse swing bowling, Pakistan’s Sarfraz Nawaz, he is the cricketing prodigy right now on the hallowed pitches of the Azad Maidan in Mumbai.
For the past four years or so, Sarfaraz, 13, has been one of the most talked about school cricketers on the planet.
Primarily a batsman, he can bowl military medium and also keep wickets. If all goes well, his feats and records suggest he may go on to play for India sooner than most other cricketers. At ten, Sarfaraz became the youngest Kanga League debutante in 2007. He shot to international fame on 4 November 2009 when he hammered a record breaking 439 for his school Rizvi Springfield against IES Kandivili, in his first ever Under-16 Lord Harris Shield match. This was the same tournament where Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli had amassed their world-record partnership of 664 runs in 1988 and shot to instant fame.
This World Cup is a huge opportunity for prodigies like Sarfaraz to be so close to the big stage. He is always watching, always learning. It is a stage where reputations are made and broken, prodigies compete fiercely, superstars blaze opponents and homes across nations turn into mini-stadiums.
Sarfaraz won’t be the last youngster to be inspired by a World Cup.
Jonty Rhodes’s superman-like dive to run out Inzamam in the 1992 edition gave birth to a fielding revolution. Sri Lanka’s victory in the 1996 tournament gave the Lankans a license to be proud and fearless. Wasim Akram’s unforgettable swing bowling spawned a thousand wannabe Akrams on the streets of Pakistan. But none was more effective than what Sarfaraz’s idol Sachin Tendulkar said of the 1983 World Cup. “I was ten when Kapil Dev lifted the Prudential Cup in the Lord’s balcony. At that moment, I had decided that I would play for India.”
These are life-altering moments in a player’s life and memories that make World Cups special. A four-year gap between World Cups means a new generation takes shape with new stars and newer strategies.
The media has been on to Sarfaraz for a while. Mumbai tabloids and broadsheets began to follow his deeds after he became the youngest Kanga League debutant. By 11, he had already met Tendulkar and Gavaskar. Shah Rukh Khan invited him to his bungalow Mannat to encourage him and invite him to train with his IPL team, the Kolkata Knight Riders.
These were a mere indication of what Sarfaraz can be. Already, he is known as a hungry run machine, whose appetite for big scores is tremendous at this tender age. Maidan cricket, and Mumbai cricket in general, has been a nursery of Indian cricket for a long time because of the doggedness it teaches from a young age.
Its routine demands utmost endurance and patience. Ask any budding cricketer what he likes most about the city’s Ranji team and he is most likely to say, ‘Bloody-minded doggedness and killer instinct’.
Mumbai cricketers are some of the toughest nuts on the Indian circuit and the tradition is quite alive even today. This is the kind of system that prodigies like Sarfaraz have to go through to pass muster. It is not only about performances. Many promising youngsters disappeared for a variety of reasons.
Mentors, therefore, become critical and Mumbai doesn’t have too many of them. Sarfaraz has his father Naushad Khan, often by his side to instill discipline and help negotiate the media. But more of the father in a bit.
When I asked Sarfaraz if he was bothered by the presence of the media, he said earnestly, “I don’t mind it. In fact, it’s good in a way as I learn a lot from the kind of questions journalists ask me.”
What does a 13-year-old learn from questions posed by journalists? He says they make him realise the value of performance. “My father always tells me, and even I realise it, that fame is temporary. It is not just the performance but also discipline, which makes for a complete sportsman.”
It’s only a shade less than the nonchalance Tendulkar showed in his first big television interview. Actor Tom Alter chatted with baby-faced squeaky-voiced Tendulkar, sipping cutting chai at the Oval Maidan. He had already scored a century on Ranji debut for Mumbai. Alter asked Tendulkar if he was scared at the thought of facing fast bowlers like Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and others. Tendulkar said, “I like to face fast bowlers, the ball comes straight on the bat”. His answers were short, almost mono syllabic but firm in tone and intent. He looked only a wee bit shy. He was mostly matter-of-fact.
The world has become 48/7 since that Tendulkar interview. Sarfaraz can be even more deadpan. He quotes Yuvraj Singh from a commercial, “Jab tak balla chal raha hai, tab tak theek hai, jis din balla ruk gaya . . . (As long as I bat well, it’s fine; the day I don’t . . .)”
THERE IS A FASCINATING STORY, a legend in Mumbai cricketing circles, involving Sarfaraz and Tendulkar. It goes somewhat like this. Sarfaraz was practicing in the nets at the MIG Club, Bandra, where Tendulkar practices when he is in Mumbai. The little boy’s blade was talking sharp. Glorious drives, cuts, pulls and solid forward defence. On one of those deliveries, he hit an impeccable straight drive. Head straight, body on top of the ball and elbow in position. Tendulkar, preparing for his own net session at a distance, was apparently enamoured by the little boy’s command. He walked up to him straight, inquired about his school and club and left after sharing a few words.
The India versus West Indies match in this World Cup was not exactly a thriller, but it was a decent game. The first over of the match was very good. On the last ball of first over, Ravi Rampaul bowled just back of length. The ball nipped and rose a bit, only faintly kissing Tendulkar’s bat. Sarfaraz jumped. Partly due to disappointment, partly awe struck. His eyes widened as if had just witnessed a rarity. Tendulkar was beaten clinically by a bowler.
If this was his reaction to the delivery, what happened next made him speechless. The wicket-keeper and the bowler appealed and in the next five seconds, Tendulkar was off in a flash, not caring to wait for the umpire’s decision. He had made up his mind, he had to go. Sarfaraz looked at his father. Naushad Khan said, “Dekh rahe ho na? Unko pata tha ki woh out the, chupchap chale gaye, ye nahi socha ki 100th, hundred karenge” (Did you see that? He knew he was out and he walked away silently, he did not think about his 100th century).
Sarfaraz was silent for the next 30 minutes. His silence was telling. Tendulkar’s dismissal was a perfect example of the strength of a sportsman’s character. Tendulkar has displayed such character on numerous occasions. That explains why a Tendulkar, who debuted a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is still an idol for the generation born during the dotcom boom. And Sarfaraz is no exception there; respect for Tendulkar comes before idolising or being a fan boy. Sarfaraz observes Tendulkar’s game closely on television. Most importantly, he knows that Tendulkar still considers himself a student of the game.
“He is a big player. He takes a lot of effort to correct his mistakes.” Over the next 10 minutes, Sarfaraz illustrates how Tendulkar used to often get caught at short point in the mid 2000s. “He plays a free game, without pressure, and most importantly, he does not throw away his wicket.”
Naushad, Sarfaraz and his two younger brothers Moin (11) and Mushir (6) take us to a local maidan in the neighbourhood. The maidan, surrounded by buildings inside a low-income group housing society, is crowded. The view is typical of a local maidan in Mumbai. Ten different set of boys are playing different matches. The youngest of the lot make way for Sarfaraz and his brother to practice street cricket. Slowly, heads start to populate different balconies across the society compound. The Khans are local celebrities.
Sarfaraz is in it partly because of his father. Naushad Khan was a Mumbai Ranji probable around 1997-1998. Born in a family with ten members (four brothers and four sisters), Naushad’s father was an Indian Railways employee. After he died, Naushad inherited the job. His main activity, though, is that of cricket coach, mentor and unofficial talent scout. He coaches Payyade Cricket Club at Azad Maidan’s John Bright pitch. He also coaches at the Anjuman-E-Islam School, Kurla (West), and the Young Mohammedan Club.
NAUSHAD IS NOT JUST ANOTHER COACH at Azad Maidan or Sarfaraz’s father. He is one of the most revered, intelligent and hard-working cricket coaches in Mumbai today. A workhorse, Naushad has a terrific eye for spotting raw talent. His most famous picks, both from his home town of Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, have been Mumbai player Iqbal Abdullah, and former Rajasthan Royals pacer, now with Pune Warriors, Kamran Khan. In 2003, Naushad spotted Abdullah during one of his vacations in Azamgarh. The left-arm spinner’s father hated him for being cricket-crazy. Khan who persuaded the father to send Abdullah to Mumbai, where he gave him shelter.
Khan trained Sarfaraz and Abdullah together around Kurla in the beginning and then took them to the more serious environs of Azad Maidan. It was a classic story of one man’s sacrifice for a talented sportsman. Naushad dedicated most of his time to Abdullah as Sarfaraz was a kid back then. As time passed, Abdullah turned into a fine all-rounder for Payyade, Anjuman-E-Islam and the Mumbai U-16 and U-19 sides. He was eventually picked up for the U-19 World Cup and the Mumbai Ranji team. After his success in both the teams, the IPL beckoned and Kolkata picked him up. Although he has not played many games yet, he is considered one of the brightest in the Mumbai team and is expected to make it to the senior team soon.
After IPL, the relationship between Naushad and Abdullah took a hit. Abdullah no longer wanted to stay with Naushad and bought a flat in a better area of the city. Naushad requested Abdullah to contribute financially to the club where he made his name, so that more could prosper like him. Abdullah gave money once but there was an argument afterward. Naushad didn’t go to Abdullah again. Narrating the incident, Khan says, “I sacrificed my private life for him. I treated him like my son. This is all because of bad company and wayward behaviour.”
Naushad has single-handedly trained many children who have gone on to play the Ranji trophy, in state teams, in U-19 national teams and even in the IPL. This is why the Khans are local celebrities. A poster on the door of a shop owned by Naushad’s brother Dilshad features Naushad, Sarfaraz, Abdullah, Sufiyan Shaikh (U-19 World Cup wicket-keeper) and Rahil Shaikh—a Class IV worker in the municipal corporation who plays for Mumbai Indians in the IPL now.
Most of Naushad’s students are Muslims from in and around Kurla, a working class Mumbai suburb that is strongly right-wing. Naushad makes a big impact on the families of the Muslim children, who are mostly from lower-middle homes. Rahil Shaikh is an example. Until Naushad picked him for his club Payyade, Shaikh used to work with the garbage cleaning department. He comes from a Muslim ghetto, Cheetah Camp, where a many ‘blast accused’ and ‘suspects’ have been arrested during combing operations. The neighbourhood that Sarfaraz is growing up in is another world compared to the world Tendulkar grew up in. Kurla (West), Buddha Colony, where the Khans live, is primarily a ghetto of Muslims and Dalits adjacent to areas inhabited by Maharashtrians. Although only five-six kilometers away from Sahitya Sahwas (Writer’s Colony) where Tendulkar grew up, the sociological and class divide is in your face. Kurla is a rough area.
Youngsters like Sarfaraz can easily fall get into bad company and forget what it means to sweat it out on the maidans. But, this is where his father stands like a rock. “Gavaskar Sir told me once, “Naushad, don’t let Sarfaraz loose off the field. Keep a close watch on who he meets, where he goes and what he does. His company is very important,” Naushad recalls. This is where a prodigy like Sarfaraz has to maintain focus and not indulge in petty pleasures.
The flat where the Khans stay is their new home, bought recently for Rs 14 lakh. It is a modest apartment on the ground floor. “I am happy. At least we have a flat now where we can peacefully stay and rest our bodies,” Naushad says.
Speaking about his partnership with his son he says, “Sarfu and I work really hard. He has got that spark. I make sure that in spite of getting basic luxuries, he understands struggle. He knows the hardships of limited resources and that the road is long and far.” It is from such humble methods that Naushad is trying hard to make use of every opportunity that will help Sarfaraz wear the Indian cap one day. He foresees his son playing in the Mumbai Ranji team in another two-three years, while his U-14 coach Prashant Shetty says, “This year is crucial for him. The transition from U-14 to U-16 is quite big; moving on to U-19 is even more difficult. But, Sarfaraz is a real hard-working boy, his net sessions are rigorous.”
Sarfaraz speaks about Tendulkar’s practice for a reason. Although he trains mainly on Azad Maidan, there are times he practices at the MIG Club, Bandra. In the nets, Tendulkar is his neighbour at times. You need to be really lucky and hard-working to have that kind of opportunity.
With utmost seriousness, Sarfaraz says, “He (Tendulkar) is in a different zone in the nets. It feels as if he cannot hear anyone around him.” Does he feel nervous practicing alongside the world’s best batsman? “Not at all. In fact I am quite confident when he’s around. If I am lucky, he will come over and help in teaching new techniques”, he says with a smile. It is also said that Sarfaraz is a huge inspiration for his peers, including Tendulkar’s son Arjun. According to a few coaches in Mumbai, Arjun respects Sarfaraz and the way he bats big.
Sarfaraz did himself a world of good by scoring the record 439. Reliance awarded him an education scholarship of Rs 6,000-7,000 a month, while a Reebok contract has resulted in a sponsored kit, head to toe.
As the match progresses on television, Tabassum Bano (37), Sarfaraz’s mother, joins us. She remarks, like a true mother, “My son trains really hard, look how much he has tanned being on the ground the whole day.”
Maidan cricket, Naushad says, is tedious and exhaustive. “Annually, Sarfaraz and his classmate from Rizvi, Arman Jaffer play easily around 160-180 days of cricket. That leaves very little time for studies. Although my younger brother Dilshad tutors him, it is difficult for Sarfaraz to catch up.”
Composed for a better part of the India versus Australia match, Sarfaraz yells, leaps and abuses once as Virat Kohli throws his wicket away and Gautam Gambhir is run out in bizarre fashion. He is tired as he has played a 30-over match in the morning. But his eyes are fixated on Yuvraj’s batting. As India inch closer to a mighty victory, Sarfaraz is fully asleep. The sound of firecrackers and a nudge from his father wake him up to post-match celebrations.
Pakistan awaits India in the semi-final. Sarfaraz has barely registered this enormity. He says a quiet goodbye and goes back to sleep. Training will start at 5 am the next day.
Nikhil M Ghanekar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.com.