There’s a magic in Mohammed Siraj‘s skill that transcends the ordinary, one unbeknownst to him runs in his blood and helps him dismiss the Labuschagnes and Roots of this world.
Fast bowling in the sub-continent is hard. The strip is tailored to throw up a puff of dust every time the ball lands on it, the scuffing up of the new ball is impatiently awaited, the lead spinner can often be spotted warming up with a few lunges and squats near fine leg after two overs and the fast bowler rushes to his position in the deep for a quiet morning session after a short opening burst.
The pitch is a visiting captain’s nightmare. Ask Joe Root. The searing hot conditions sap up whatever is left of the zeal with which they land in the sub-continent. For fast bowlers, the tour is often a leveller; one that pulls them down from the dizzying peaks of Trent Bridge to the nadirs of a Rajkot or a Chepauk. Ask Stuart Broad. Arriving in India after an English summer that saw him scale the 500 Test wickets milestone, he was sat out the first Test, bowled 26 overs across three innings in the next two Tests and returned with zero wickets. After eight Tests in India, Broad’s bowling strike-rate is 114.6.
It doesn’t make him any less of a fast bowler, at least in the rose-tinted glasses of the ones ridiculing the challenge of a raging turner. But that debate is for another day. Here, Broad isn’t alone. Brett Lee (111 after four Tests), Chris Woakes (154 after three Tests), Vernon Philander (104.4 after three Tests) and Stuart Clark (219 after two Tests) are others to have bowling strike-rates standing in protest to their overall numbers when it comes to Tests in India.
And it’s not just the away bowlers. Ajit Agarkar, hailed in the late 1990s as India’s answer to swing bowling, took 10 wickets from 215 overs in India (a strike-rate of 129). Irfan Pathan, for all his heroics in Pakistan, had a strike-rate of 97.8 in 14 home Tests. Zaheer Khan, the legend who cradled India’s overseas aspirations in the 2000s, took his 104 Test wickets at home coming at a strike-rate of 70.2.
The narrative is a pretty five-finger exercise: fast bowling in India is hard. It’s often a support job, one where the fast bowlers take the bullets to keep the spinners unscathed and well-oiled. Even in these changing times of quicker wickets (sorry England) in red-ball cricket in India, one inspired from their fast bowling revolution, fast bowling is no mud pie.
Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav, flag-bearers of the new movement, have already shaken up the very roots of Test cricket in the sub-continent. When Jasprit Bumrah pulled out of the Test for personal reasons, not a feather was ruffled in the Indian camp. India’s back-up is that good. Umesh, who warmed the bench the entire series, couldn’t squeeze into the XI.
Then there is Mohammed Siraj, the self-effacing, lovable character who celebrates for his friends, stands up for what he believes is right and lives his father’s dream. Siraj is the small town boy who made it to the national team and broke down in front of the Sydney crowd, living the dream of every teenager who shouted ‘Saaaaachin, Saaaachin’ from the stands.
He is also very good at his art: fast bowling. He showed it in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. But no, that’s where fast bowlers, historically, have a fighting chance. The real test is back home, when you have to count the minutes to stumps at deep square-leg and run in to celebrate your colleague’s success every now and then without ever getting a good glimpse at the rough, beaten up red ball.
Siraj thrives at home. The placid, flat sub-continental dust bowl is where Siraj learned his craft. His numbers in first-class cricket are ridiculously good. His first-class strike-rate is a shade above 46 after 42 matches.
Often slammed for his ordinary outings in the Indian Premier League, Siraj’s Test career bloomed in the Royal Challengers Bangalore nets, one which also had Bharat Arun, India’s present national team bowling coach. Impressing Arun as net bowler in Hyderabad, Siraj stormed the next Ranji season (2016/17), finishing with 41 wickets, the third best, in nine games at a strike-rate of 39.5.
Nearly four years on, that strike-rate has hardly taken a beating. Siraj added the out-swinger to join his masterful in-swinger in his arsenal alongside some crafty reverse swing, brilliant off- and leg-cutters and some clever use of release points and angles.
Three years ago he claimed to know nothing of the nuances of the art shortly after blowing away a touring Australia A side with an eight-wicket haul. After Ahmedabad 2021, that possibility seems nigh impossible, for Siraj’s skill, one that got overshadowed by his eye-catching journey to the top, was on full view to the crowd in the massive Ahmedabad stadium.
The only change in India’s playing XI for the final Test was Siraj in place of Bumrah, a debatable call with a fit Umesh waiting in the wings, but one that was quickly brushed under the carpet as Siraj, in red-hot form, set up the England skipper with a few balls seaming away off the deck before a fuller in-swinging one that further seamed in off the surface trapped him in front.
As Sanjay Manjrekar later observed, more than the obvious sub-continental mantra of bowling at the stumps, it was a case of Siraj setting up the usually assertive Joe Root early on in his innings with a concatenation of perfect deliveries to expose the smallest of flaws in his technique early on.
“I have always believed that against the guys who have this trigger movement, go right back before the ball is bowled and then make the adjustment. At the start of the innings, they are always vulnerable, whether it is Joe Root, or whether it is Hashim Amla, or whether it is Steve Waugh in the past. Anyone who has a trigger movement, if you put the ball there, just around full and if the ball does something, then you have a chance against these batsmen early on,” Manjrekar, a shrewd analyst when it comes to batting technique, said.
Siraj can no longer feign to not know about the subtle nuances of the art of fast bowling. Or maybe he can. In the post-day press conference he spoke of his fairly simple, straightforward plan against Bairstow: “Whenever I watched Bairstow’s previous wickets, I saw him getting dismissed to deliveries that came in”. If he is indeed naive of the skill he possesses, there’s a magic to it that transcends the ordinary. Perhaps, it is why AB de Villiers added the word ‘Magic’ to his nickname ‘Miyan’, making him ‘Miyan Magic’ to his RCB teammates.
The magic made a fair few appearances Down Under, most notably in the setting up of Cameron Green. But if that’s a rookie undone on a pitch where fast bowlers are expected to ‘make things happen’, here it was none other than Root, in a ground that had spewed a venomous two-day pitch few days back.
Mohammed Siraj has been superb this morning. He’s drawn a false shot with 40% of his deliveries – the average in Test cricket is 15%. In the absence of Jasprit Bumrah, his replacement has taken charge. #INDvENG
— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) March 4, 2021
It required skill, a fair bit of thought and above all, impeccable execution. It wasn’t just Root at the receiving end of Siraj’s magic. After an hour of the day, 40 per cent of Siraj’s deliveries had induced false shots according to CricViz. The session still saw England, spurred by a robust Jonny Bairstow-Ben Stokes stand, rise up from the ashes to go to lunch just three down, a luxury in this series so far.
But before the masala from the lunch break could leave the digestive track, Siraj had struck again, this time with a 146kmph nip-backer angled in from a wide release that had Bairstow squirming at the crease. The sample size is minuscule, but after two home Tests and 22 overs, his strike-rate is 44.0. If his first-class numbers are anything to go by, Siraj knows his way around the snake pits of the sub-continent.
If anything, India barely missed Shami, Bumrah and Umesh, arguably three who could be first-choice seamers on these wickets at home, as they bowled England out for 205 with a fair bit of help from Siraj. The length of the fast bowling queue, of which Siraj has jumped up the order quite a bit, means India can even afford to dream of separate fast bowling attacks home and away.