Run-hungry Sarfaraz continues to hammer down selection door

run-hungry sarfaraz continues to hammer down selection door
© PTI Sarfaraz Khan has amassed a total of 937 runs this Ranji Trophy season © PTI

A slap of the thigh. Fingers pointing to the sky. Hand on his heart accompanied by a fist pump and a roar towards the dressing room. Sarfaraz Khan’s celebration was every bit as colourful as his hundred, his fourth of the ongoing Ranji Trophy season.

The latest, his eighth in first-class cricket, was only his second one below 150. However, it may be his most important yet, having come in a final against a strong Madhya Pradesh attack after Mumbai’s middle order had an uncharacteristic collapse.

In the previous season, in 2019-20, Sarfaraz had made 928 runs in nine innings. The pandemic-induced break only reinvigorated his desire for runs. This season, he has already made 937 in eight innings at an average of 133.85, with one more innings potentially left. Overall, among batters to have made at least 2000 first-class runs, his average of 82 is second-best to Sir Donald Bradman.

Ahead of the season, his abbu impressed upon Sarfaraz the need to have another ‘Mayank-like season’. The essence of Naushad’s message was to make daddy hundreds, and break down the selection door as Mayank Agarwal did during a record-breaking 2017-18 season that eventually earned him a Test cap. This has been as Mayank-like as it can get.

It’s even more incredible because, unlike Agarwal, Sarfaraz bats in the middle order. It’s not that he isn’t good enough to be in the top four. No. 5 has been his designated position only because his improved game smarts and situational awareness complement each other, especially while having to rally with the lower middle order.

In a grand finale, with Mumbai slightly on the back foot at 248 for 5, which became 248 for 6 two balls into the second day, this was yet another validation of the team management’s faith in Sarfaraz’s ability to carry the lower order.

When Sarfaraz broke through eight seasons ago as a boy wonder, the punch in his strokes was unmistakable, but his inability to temper down would lead to his downfall often. Inconsistency in run-making was one thing; lack of fitness and a lifestyle that paid little heed to diet and rest let him down.

Sarfaraz says he took the easy way out and moved states. This, he soon realised, was a mistake because he wasn’t tackling the root cause. Ahead of the 2019 season, he decided to transform himself physically. Not just become “muscle fit” but “cricket fit”.

run-hungry sarfaraz continues to hammer down selection door
© PTI Sarfaraz Khan’s second fifty came in 38 balls on Thursday © PTI

In essence, he wanted to bat longer, wear down attacks and not just provide sparks of brilliance, concentrate better, and have the same intensity, and focus in the final session as he would with the new ball. He did all this and much more during his 134 that set up Mumbai’s strong first-innings total of 374 on a slightly dry Bengaluru deck.

Sarfaraz had ended the opening day on 40, firmly intent on crease occupation. He had already batted 125 deliveries at stumps and had a clear understanding of how the surface was playing. When he lost Shams Mulani off the second ball on Thursday, the onus was even more on Sarfaraz to bail Mumbai out from a precarious 248 for 6. Would he attempt a jailbreak, or would he milk the runs?

The first eight overs produced just 10 runs. Sarfaraz wasn’t allowed to get away. Madhya Pradesh’s fast bowlers tried everything. Setting him up to drive with a packed cordon, attack the stumps trying to get him lbw, frustrate him by cutting off the point boundary and at times bowling short into the body with a man right under his nose. Sarfaraz seemed to have it all under control.

It wasn’t until he got to his half-century off 152 balls that Sarfaraz started to open up. By then Mumbai were seven down, yet he was in no hurry to break free. This comes with unmistakable confidence in his own abilities as it does of his mates. When the spinners came on after an excellent opening burst from Gaurav Yadav, Sarfaraz quickly jumped on to play some ferocious sweeps against Kumar Kartikeya’s left-arm spin.

Against pace, especially off Yadav who was nipping it around both ways, Sarfaraz stood a foot or two outside the crease to negate the late movement. Within an hour, the packed cordon has been reduced to a lone slip, with cover and midwicket the only men inside the ring to try and get Sarfaraz off the strike. It helped massively that Sarfaraz found a stonewaller in No. 9 Dhawal Kulkarni, as he batted out 35 deliveries for 1. This gave him some time and space at the other end to plan a calculated late assault.

Sarfaraz marched into the 90s with a ramp over the slips, a shot he plays so late that bowlers are often tricked into believing he’s scooping it over short fine. While the half-century had taken 152 balls, the next fifty took him all of 38 balls.

He was the last man out, to an ugly hoick, on 134, but by then, the transformation from a khadoos Mumbai batter to the next-gen big-hitter was complete. He had once again rescued Mumbai and kept their dream of No. 42 well and truly alive.

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