“If I don’t drop you today, I will be doing a disservice not to myself but to you.” It’s a line that Sarfaraz Khan has replayed in his head on numerous occasions over the last 20 months. That was of course Virat Kohli’s response to him in 2016 when the youngster approached his Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) skipper wanting to find out why he’d been left out after just five matches in IPL IX. Kohli also wanted Sarfaraz to realize the standards of fitness and fielding required at the highest level, to the extent of even categorically revealing in a press conference that the teenager had been dropped for not being “up to the mark” on the field.
Sarfaraz insists now having taken Kohli’s brazenly honest remarks in his stride. But it would have only been understandable if he hadn’t. For, back then, Sarfaraz was Indian cricket’s new wonder-kid.
He’d already made a mark in the IPL with a few blazing cameos the previous season, earned rave reviews and endearing nicknames from teammates AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle, and appeared in a second under-19 World Cup, becoming the first batsman in history to score 7 half-centuries across both appearances.
And there had already been murmurs of Sarfaraz, then just 17, becoming the latest hot property in a junior World Cup year to be fast-tracked into the senior Indian team, which at that time was getting ready for a low-profile tour of Zimbabwe. But here he was being told by Kohli that being dropped was for his own good.
The IPL snub was followed by an underwhelming domestic season for his adopted state team of Uttar Pradesh. Then on the eve of IPL X, where he had been touted to open the batting with Gayle in place of the injured Kohli, he was stretchered out of the Chinnaswamy Stadium during a practice match. A rogue dive had left him needing knee surgery, ruling him out of the tournament and leaving him on the sidelines for at least five months.
Just like that, Sarfaraz’s expedited rise to stardom had hit a serious roadblock. On Wednesday, his career might, kind of, have come a full circle with RCB making him the only uncapped player to be retained by a franchise for IPL XI. But till a few months ago, Sarfaraz seemed like the latest next big thing to have flashed too early. And he was certainly on the wrong end of the answer to that inscrutable question that follows every under-19 World Cup star in India — Will you be a Virat Kohli or end up like Unmukt Chand?
At the first-ever DDCA conclave recently, Unmukt had to contend with a rather awkward question. “Are you still playing?” he was asked by a budding actor who had once dabbled in cricket. Sheepishly, Unmukt informed him that he wasn’t only just playing but was also part of the Delhi Ranji Trophy squad, only not in the playing XI. And that was that. It’s rather unfair that he should have become the poster-boy for those who get ‘caught in the crossfire between childhood and stardom’- to borrow a line from Roger Waters – in Indian cricket. He’s not the first under-19 star to fade away rapidly, and won’t be the last either. In fact, only a minority of those who have played the junior World Cup even make it big. For the record, at least 10 of the 17-member Test squad presently in South Africa didn’t make it to the biggest event at under-19 level when they were in contention.
So while making it to the World Cup squad would indeed seem the highest point of their young careers — even some in the present line-up have already played Ranji Trophy cricket — it still remains a mere pit-stop, even if a rather glittering one, in their respective journeys. When asked about how often he has to remind the boys of that fact, coach Rahul Dravid had said his players didn’t have to look beyond their predecessors from two years ago to understand the purpose of under-19 cricket and “where their real aspirations should be”.
“There have been boys from the previous teams that have gone up to do absolutely phenomenal and gone on to play for India. There are some who haven’t been able to do that,” he’d said.
Dravid went an extra step in driving the point home. He invited some of his alumni from 2016 to speak on the “challenges that come post the World Cup” to the present team during their preparatory camp at Bangalore’s NCA last month. Sarfaraz was not surprisingly one of those. “I consider it to be a great bonus in a cricketer’s life. The most difficult period for a player is right after under-19 cricket. But by playing a World Cup, beech ka rasta easy ho jaata hai. You’re always one step ahead of someone who has not. People speak a lot about Unmukt Chand and how his career has gone. He performed wonderfully at the World Cup and then played for India A for nearly 4 years after that. He even captained them twice. A normal player who didn’t play the World Cup wouldn’t have gotten such a long run,” Sarfaraz says, sharing a bit of what he told former schoolmate Prithvi Shaw & Co.
According to the 20-year-old right-hander, being part of a junior World Cup campaign also shortens the pathway to get at least one step closer to the highest level, drastically in some cases, and can give a player a 3-4 year cushion over a peer who didn’t quite make it.
“You see India ka king, world ka king Virat bhai. He was promoted directly from under-19 to India and look where he is now. If you are a player, who plays under-16, under-19, under-23 for your state and then Ranji Trophy. Most players would take 3-4 years after getting to Ranji to get to India A. But with an under-19 World Cup tag, all you need to do often is to score a 100 or 150. You save on that 3-4 year gap,” he adds. And that extra period also gives a young cricketer more time and experience to mature and understand himself as a player, according to Sarfaraz.
There is a difference between Unmukt and Sarfaraz though. The few sparks of audacious brilliance that he showed with the bat for RCB have ensured that Sarfaraz has remained in the public consciousness and questions to him during his time away from the game have been more around when he’ll be back rather than whether he’s even playing anymore.
Unlike former World Cup teammate Rahul Batham, who had become so bogged down by constant queries about his future in the game that he spent nearly three months cooped up at home and only meeting those who he looked towards for motivation. The all-rounder played in all six of India’s matches in Bangladesh but his last competitive match was the final of that tournament against West Indies on February 14, 2016. And he’s yet to make his debut in any format for the senior Madhya Pradesh team.
A stress fracture in his back while playing a zonal under-19 match in Himachal Pradesh that same year left him in the lurch for five months, taking away the entire 2016-17 season. By July next year, Batham seemed to have regained full fitness and was preparing for the season ahead with the conviction that he would get his break finally for the state side. But there was a relapse, and Batham was pushed towards another enforced break, this one lasting three months.
“From July to September I was recuperating again, which meant I got no preparation for the 2017-18 season and I wasn’t considered for the senior team. I even met Rahul sir at the NCA before the relapse, and he did ask about where I’d been. He said I had a bright future and shouldn’t worry about the injury. The second time was obviously more annoying since I had done all the hard-work to regain my fitness after the stress fracture,” Batham says.
Despite the lengthy time away from the game, the 19-year-old is still optimistic of having an ace up his sleeve, which he expects to be a springboard. The World Cup player tag he believes will make the difference.
“Since I have that tag, I don’t have to worry about a spot in the team. I wouldn’t have to wait like others. So whenever I am fit, I know I will get my chance. I can focus solely on performance and not worry about whether I’ll keep my place in the squad. That’s the advantage you have by playing in a junior World Cup,” he explains. Batham even believes that performances at the junior World Cup and the Ranji Trophy often get measured with the same yardstick when it comes to entering the national reckoning.
“Jaldi, you get highlighted. Everyone is seeing you. Everyone knows about you. You’re just a few performances away from making a mark,” he adds.
Perhaps the confidence comes from having seen the rapid rise of some of his colleagues from that 2016 World Cup. While Rishabh Pant and Washington Sundar have already played for India, Batham’s new-ball partner and statemate Avesh Khan is presently in South Africa as a net bowler for Virat Kohli & Co.
Like Dravid says, you only have to look at that same line-up that included the likes of Batham, Sarfaraz, Pant and Sundar to fathom why the under-19 World Cup can be a great platform as well as a false alarm. Those players aside, Ishan Kishan and Anmolpreet Singh have made stellar beginnings in their first-class career. But a bulk of the rest are still trying to find their feet, and are still stuck being more boys than men.
And those who have made it big weren’t necessarily the ones who stood out at the World Cup. Like his fellow Tamil Nadu all-rounder Napoleon Einstein had in 2008, Sundar turned more heads with the uniqueness of his first name rather than his exploits in Bangladesh. On the topic of names, Virat wasn’t the only Kohli in Malaysia nine years ago when he led his team to World Cup glory. Taruwar scored almost the same number of runs as his namesake in that tournament. But that remains the highpoint of his cricket career, even though he still plays intermittently for Punjab.
There was but one slight difference in what the two Kohlis achieved in 2008, except the fact that one was captain. Virat ended up as the only Indian batsman to score a century in the tournament-his only score above 50-while Taruwar made three half-centuries with a highest score of just 63 not out.
It’s a lesson that Sarfaraz reveals to have learnt while he was on the mend for five months.
“I always wondered where I’d fallen short. But then I realized I let myself down a little during the World Cup. I made a lot of 70s, but if I had managed to convert them to hundreds, maybe I would have also got an opportunity at playing upar ka cricket. This is what I was telling the present team. Agar badhna hai toh bada run hi karna padega. So that you don’t get an unnees-bees wala chance, pura hi chance mil jaaye. Who knows with a three-figure score I might have been picked for India A and maybe even beyond,” he says with a slight lament.
Both Sarfaraz and Batham though aren’t too bothered anymore about the enforced injury breaks. The all-rounder has made it to the probable list of MP’s one-day team and will be playing in their practice matches in Mumbai. Sarfaraz, who’s presently in Lucknow as part of UP’s camp before the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, refers to the break as a ‘blessing in disguise’ since it allowed him to get fitter than ever before.
“I never knew what fitness was growing up. I learnt everything from Virat bhai and I’m still learning. I haven’t focused on losing weight but more on converting the body fat into strength. Now I feel so strong, I have almost forgotten that I had a knee surgery,” he says. It’s also given him time to indulge in self-discovery and put to rest his one-time “problem child” reputation.
“I got time to understand myself and what I need to improve upon. Main kya hoon, main kya tha, what has happened in the past, I thought about everything and now I want to forget the past and focus only on taking the next step up,” he says.
On the cricketing front, he insists on having already turned the corner, converting those stroke-filled 70s and 80s into big centuries. The under-19 World Cup might not be quite the make or break for those who play in it, especially considering how inconsistent an indicator it has proven to be in terms of where they will eventually end up. But you can never write off its significance in terms of the recall value that it provides for any player who makes it this far, or like Sarfaraz so succinctly puts it, “jin cricketero ke life mein ups and downs hoga, unke liye toh banaya gaya hai under-19 World Cup.”
Class of 2016: Where are they now?
U-19 WC games: 6
Post World Cup: ODIs: 1, T20Is 1, First-class: 12, List A: 10, IPL: 11
Sundar has shown maturity beyond his years, playing for Rising Pune Supergiant in the IPL last year and also during the ODI he played against Sri Lanka last month.
U-19 WC games: 6
Post World Cup: First-class: 16, List A: 7, IPL: 11
Was part of the Gujarat Lions squad. The wicket-keeper batsman made four first-class centuries and is growing into one of the mainstays of the Jharkhand line-up.
U-19 World Cup games: 6
Post World Cup: T20Is: 2, First-class: 15, List A: 10, IPL: 14
Though he had a below-par First-class season in terms of runs while captaining Delhi — which reached the final — the Delhi Daredevils management retained the young keeper-batsman.
U-19 WC games: 6
Post World Cup: First-class: 3
Has been laid low with a knee injury. Was part of the KXIP squad last IPL season.
U-19 WC games: 6
Post World Cup: First-class: 3, IPL: 1
The fast bowler has gone to South Africa with the Indian team as a net bowler.
U-19 WC games: 6
Post World Cup: First-class: 2
The fast bowler was a member of the Delhi Daredevils squad last season.
U-19 WC games: 6
Post World Cup: First-class 13, List A: 6
Has made five First-class half centuries. Delhi Daredevils bought him for Rs 10 lakh at the 2016 IPL auction.
U-19 WC games: 5
Yet to make First-class debut
Batham was the first-change bowler at U-19 level. Has missed a good part of this season because of a stress fracture.
U-19 WC games: 4
Post World Cup: First-class: 11, List A:4
The Himachal Pradesh boy has a classical left-arm spinner’s action. His game is more suited to the longer format.
U-19 WC games: 3
Post World Cup: First-class: 5, List A: 2
Made 267 and an unbeaten 252 against Chhattisgarh and Services respectively in the Ranji Trophy this season.
U-19 WC games: 3
Post World Cup: First-class: 10, List A: 6
Was part of the Sunrisers Hyderabad squad. Bhui went to the U-19 World Cup with two seasons of first-class cricket behind him. He made 553 runs from six matches, including two hundreds this Ranji season.
U-19 WC games: 2
Post World Cup: First-class: 1
With Piyush Chawla moving to Gujarat, the Uttar Pradesh youngster has an opportunity to make a mark.
U-19 World Cup matches: 1
Has not been able to make an impression post World Cup.
U-19 WC games: 0
Post World Cup: First-class: 16, List A: 6, T20: 6
The Chhattisgarh batsman didn’t get a game during the World Cup but has sparkled in First-Class cricket. He made a double century against Vidarbha this season.