As the sun goes on Mumbais maidans,young boys,their flannels gone brown from the dust,walk back with talk of big scores,blinding catches and terrific bowling spells. These days,the buzz in Mumbai is about three teenagersSarfaraz Khan,Arman Jaffer and Prithvi Shawand their superlative scores with the bat. For the first time since Sachin Tendulkar made his debut,these three youngsters have set the city grounds on fire.
Playing for Mumbais Rizvi Springfield School,Sarfaraz,Arman and Prithvi have an aggregate of 25,000 runs between them over the last three seasons. Sarfaraz has smashed 31 centuries while Prithvi has over 25. Arman has crossed the 100-mark on 55 occasions28 of them coming in one season. Thats a total of around 120 tons between the three.
These centuries have included some big hits: Sarfarazs record-breaking 439 in his first-ever Under-16 Harris Shield encounter in 2009; Armans 498 in December 2010,which created a new landmark as the highest-ever individual score in a school match. Though Prithvi,considered the most precociously talented of the lot,hasnt yet notched up any such mega score,he too has enjoyed a prolific run. The right-hander,who at 13 is one year junior to the other two,is at present in Manchester,UK,as part of an exchange programme and has already scored a debut ton for Cheadle Hulme School in a Division A contest.
Arman is considered the grittiest and most graceful of the lot. The stocky Sarfaraz is all aggression and doesnt mind living on the edge. Prithvi plays with elegance and has the ability to play a variety of roles with the bat.
Rizvi Springfield Schools cricket coach Raju Pathak says,If Sarfaraz and Arman take 100 balls to correct one shot,Prithvi is so gifted that he can master it in 10 or 20 balls.
Each of them spends close to 170-180 days a year playing matches. The rest of the days are spent in training and tuning their skills. Sarfaraz and Arman are exclusively under the tutelage of their fathers,while Prithvi is being coached by Prashant Shetty at the MIG club,where he counts Tendulkars son,Arjun,among his teammates.
Besides the big scores,what marks these boys out from the others is a grit that comes from living this game,from having fathers who have staked their all to see their sons achieve cricketing excellence. Its a tenacious pursuit,with no room for distractions,where failure is hardly an option.
Naushad Khan is heavy-set,spews shayari and wears his heart on his sleeve as he brags about his exploits as a cricketer (the farthest he has made is to the probables of the state team). In the past,I have even had to beg those in power for bats. But I dont regret any of that. Zindagi mein kuch haadsa hona chahiye (You need to have experienced some setback in life). You need it to generate that fire in your belly, he says,talking of the obstacles life threw his way,of the days he hawked track-pants and caps on railway platforms and in trains before he took to coaching. He now trains children at Macho Cricket Club in Mumbais Azad Maidan in the evenings,but mornings are exclusively for his son Sarfaraz. He wont have any of lifes unpredictable twists come in the way of the goal he has set for his son.
Naushad is a dominating presence and 14-year-old Sarfaraz,the eldest of his three boys,usually sits obediently,talking only when the coach thinks it necessary. Their coach-ward relationship often infringes upon their more private moments so neither winces when Sarfaraz often calls his abba Sir.
Following an early morning bike ride to Azad Maidan from their house in Kurlas slums,Sarfarazs regimen begins with an exercise to improve concentration15 minutes of moving his thumb towards and away from his eyes. After an extended session against a special synthetic ball that swings drastically,Sarfaraz is made to face thousands of deliveries to perfect the offending stroke which would have resulted in his dismissal the previous day.
At times,we even spend a couple of months working on a particular shot,especially if Sarfaraz has erred in its execution, says Naushad.
He will do everything to ensure that the punt hes taken on his sons batting talent pays off. Having seen Sarfaraz dominate on flat wickets,Naushad once took him on a whirlwind tour to Vadodara,Delhi,Meerut,Lucknow and Dehra Dun to get him accustomed to different kinds of wickets. The duo would travel through the night on trains and play matches during the day.
The Naushad family has just moved into their new home at Kurlas Taximan Colony. News of their arrival has already spread in the typically working-class neighbourhood. The coach plans to convert the small courtyard in front into a small coaching ground,which will include CCTV cameras and a concrete wicket.
Behind Naushads single-minded pursuit of a goal he has set for his son lies a story of heartbreak or,as Naushad says,betrayal by his principal ward Iqbal Abdulla of Kolkata Knight Riders fame. He had a public spat with the left-arm spinner,whom he brought home from oblivion and turned into a star. I treated him like my son,and he broke my heart, he says.
The only way to set the record straight now,believes Naushad,is for Sarfaraz to make it big.
The lane outside the Jaffers home in Bandras Nargis Dutt Nagar slum colony is lined with gutters and well-fed goats. But 14-year-old Arman Jaffers cricketing accomplishments have begun to make a mark here. A Toyota Innova that a businessman gifted Arman occupies much of the lane outside. Inside the house,an LCD television,a DVD player and a laptop get prominent space.
The Jaffer family,though,have always lived close to the bone. A decade-long family feud has left them desolate. If things had turned out different,Armans father Kalim Jaffer says,they wouldnt have had to huddle up in their 10×10 one-room home,sleep on the floor and live hand-to-mouth.
Kalim began his coaching career in the early 90s by taking charge of younger brother Wasim,who would go on to play Test and ODI cricket for India. A sibling dispute,however,led to drastic ramifications,and by 2001,his family was in shambles.
Suddenly,I was back to square one with nothing in hand. Arman was just a young boy then. But he remembers those terrible days, says Kalim.
The confectionery and pickle shop that Kalim ran a few metres away from his house was taken away. He then briefly made a living selling his wares off a cart,while taking time out to pursue his cricket coaching on the side.
I noticed that Armans career graph was improving tremendously. I shut down my business and got back to full-time coaching, says Kalim.
Though Kalim,who has coached a number of Mumbai cricketers over the past decade,did receive help from well-wishers during those desperate days,it was Armans achievements with the bat that helped the Jaffers turn the corner.
Arman is quiet and shy and responds to most questions with a reluctant smile. Prayer,he says,has played an important role in helping him fight the temptation to stray from his goal. Kalims out-of-the box methods have played a part too.
As coach,Kalim has always side-stepped the official MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) manual. For Arman,he has designed a routine which,he thinks,will help the boy enhance his endurance. I make him drive his car at 20 kph for one hour straight. At that age,you want to drive as fast as you can,just like you want to smash every ball that you face. If you can curb your rush of blood behind the wheel,it will develop your patience, says Kalim.
Kalim did not let his son play against a hard ball till the boy turned eight. To ensure that he found the gaps while batting,Kalim placed chairs at designated spots. Even now,there are a number of shadow-practice drills that the stylish right-hander is put through.
Armans regimen also includes simulating tough conditions,where he is given a stiff target to chase in 25 overs and he is rated at the end,depending on how many times he got out in his quest.
My father made me practise my back-foot play for more than a month before I played my first big match. I didnt realise how useful that was till I played that match, says Arman.
Till two years ago,Prithvi Shaw had to shun the pillow by 4.30 every morning to catch the 6.09 local from Virar to get to the MIG ground in Bandra for his practice sessions. His exploits have brought him closer to the city,but the 13-year-old still bears the responsibility of being the sole earning member of the Shaw family.
Prithvis mother died when he was four. By then,the boy was already a show-stealer with the bat. Crowds used to gather at the municipality ground in Virar to watch the little kid play fluent shots against these big boys, recalls Prithvis father Pankaj.
Pankaj,who ran a small business of readymade garments,didnt know enough cricket to coach his son,but he knew he couldnt afford to just sit back. He enrolled the boy at the MIG club in Bandra but as Prithvis star continued to rise,the senior Shaw was forced to make a tough call.
We had to travel to Mumbai every day to ensure that Prithvi got the best training and opportunities. It was getting difficult for me to handle both his cricket and my business. So I had to dig deep and shut the business down in 2006, says Pankaj.
Pankaj continued to accompany his son to Bandra and back every day. His mornings were spent sitting outside his school,while in the evenings,he would watch from the sidelines for hours as Prithvi trained,before escorting him back home.
In 2010,the young right-hander caught the eye of retired Mumbai left-arm spinner Nilesh Kulkarni,whose sports management company signed up the teenager for a sum of Rs 3 lakh a year. The same year,a corporator offered the Shaws an apartment in Santacruz,where they now live.
Prithvi,who is now in Manchester as part of an exchange programme,has already mastered the cricketing conditions there and has scored a debut ton for Cheadle Hulme School in a Division A contest.
People come up to me and say they see Sachin Tendulkar in me. They compare me with God! It is in my best interest to ignore these comparisons and focus on my batting, he says,with a maturity far beyond his age.
But behind the chutzpah and self-confidence,however,is the real Prithvi,all of 13,who loves to watch cartoons and insists that his father treat him to Chinese food every time he scores a century.
Prithvi,Arman,Sarfaraz. Three boys with exceptional talent,but cocooned from the lives that children their age live. The only world they know is of bats and balls,fours and sixes,catches and stumpings,and,of course,those extravagant man-of-the-match awards.
Going to school has never been a prerogative. Sarfaraz hasnt been to a classroom for over two years now. Prithvi and Arman only get to attend school during the monsoon,when the rain leaves the grounds unfit for play,or an odd day or two when they arent playing a match.
Their fathers will have it no other way.
There are plenty of bad influences lingering around,and I dont want anything to distract Sarfaraz at the moment, says Naushad.
Arman isnt allowed to touch his laptop,while his phone can only be used to contact family. His best trait is that he doesnt have a friends circle. Social can turn into anti-social at times. He has all the freedom when it comes to cricket. Not with anything else in his life, says Kalim.
Though Rizvi school coach Pathak recognises the talent he sees in the three boys,he is conservative about making predictions about who among them will last the distance. Many young cricketers have excelled in school cricket previously too but things changed for them after they turned 16. Many are lost now and their dreams of making it big lie shattered, he says.
So what are we witnessing then? The birth of three batsmen who will lead India to path-breaking pinnacles? Or just the story of three young men whose talents are merely a class above the level theyre presently playing in? Whether any of them turns out to be the next Tendulkar or not,for the families,there is no question of turning back now. All three families have invested everything they have into their sons careers. These are dreams crafted with no back-up plan or insurance.
As Naushad says: Bas,abhi hamare liye peeche jaane ka raasta nahi hai yahan se (There is no going back).