Brisbane Test: After Siraj touch, series decider on final day
- India vs Australia: Siraj’s 5/73 coupled with another fine piece of fast bowling from Shardul Thakur (4/61), helped India bowl Australia out for 294 in their second innings, which set India 328 to win.
This is it. We are in the final hours of a remarkable, utterly berserk, tour of Australia and there’s still no clear winner. The final gauntlet has been thrown, with Australia setting India an improbable 328-run target on the fifth day. This isn’t a benign Sydney pitch though. The cracks on the Gabba pitch have widened enough to keep Australia’s tired pacers interested and India extremely guarded. But the possibility of an Australian resurgence comes with a few riders: Rain, Cheteshwar Pujara, and India’s collective resilience.
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Irrespective of what happens on Tuesday though, this tour has been ground-breaking in expanding cricket’s storyline beyond the usual results, trophies, Test championship points and bragging rights. With Twenty20 threatening to sweep cricket fans as the game’s only high-adrenaline, high-entertainment version, Test cricket needed something special to make its august presence felt. It needed stories of inexplicable collapses, of resolve and improbable battles, of sacrifice and a triumph over pain, of the rise of new heroes, of fathers dreaming about their sons playing Test cricket but not living long enough to see it come true. This series has seen it all and more, and on Monday many of those narratives came together in the form of Mohammed Siraj.
“Miyan bhai” to the team, Siraj lost his father, who drove a autorickshaw in Hyderabad, earlier during the tour. He chose to stay back in Australia to fight with the team. He was handed his debut in the second Test at Melbourne after Mohammed Shami was ruled out with a fractured arm. At Brisbane, in just his third Test, he found himself leading India’s attack as the most experienced bowler in the line-up.
In the third Test at Sydney, he had stood up to racial abuse from the stands. In Brisbane he stood up to be counted as India’s bowling spearhead, removing both Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne in the second innings on Monday to complete his first five-wicket haul.
This means Siraj and his bowling unit has now dismissed Australia twice at the Gabba, something that has happened to the hosts only twice before at this ground in the last 32 years. Supremely fit, Siraj has displayed the stamina to bowl long spells and the maturity to vary his lengths to established batsmen like Smith, Labuschagne and David Warner.
Siraj has picked Labuschagne twice this series, but Monday’s dismissal may have made a telling difference in Australia’s final score. Banging it in on a length, Siraj produced extra bounce to peg Labuschagne back and extract a thick edge that flew to Rohit Sharma at slip.
Australia were on the ascendency then, having added 101 runs in 24 overs despite losing overnight batsmen Marcus Harris and Warner in quick succession. Labuschagne’s wicket was a setback, but Australia were also in a hurry to score so they could get a chance to dismiss India in the second innings for a win. Smith raced to his fifty in just 67 balls after Siraj had misjudged a catch well within long-on boundary. A return catch from Cameron Green was spilled as well. Determined to make up for his errors, Siraj unleashed a snorter that reared from back of the length and snared an edge off Smith’s gloves. It was easily his most prized scalp.
“In the whole series, I feel it would be Steve Smith's wicket,” said Siraj after rain brought an early close to the day’s play. “There was extra bounce from the area where I thought I will get it. He is the best batsmen in the world. The wicket of Marnus too boosted my confidence.”
Siraj’s remarkable control over the short ball was evident when he followed up the Smith dismissal with another bouncer to Paine, forcing the Australia captain to take his bottom hand off the bat. But he can be a slick customer too. Warner knows. In the Sydney Test, Siraj set up the Australian opener with a couple of short ones before slipping in a fuller delivery. All Warner managed was a half-hearted dab at it, sending the ball full throttle to Pujara at first slip.
Matthew Wade fatally chasing down a ball going down leg and getting caught must have been the result of a strategic ploy as well - Wade’s discomfort against deliveries at his legs is well known. Executing these strategies with the skill and control to subtly change length and line is what makes Siraj dangerous. “You first set up the batsman by a series of inswing deliveries, followed by an outswinger,” he explained.
“That goes on till around one or two overs in the same channel before changing the length. Because even the batsmen can’t accept that the bowler can suddenly change like that.”
What made India’s bowling performance on Monday even more remarkable was the support Siraj got from Shardul Thakur. Washington Sundar was a brave act too, catching Warner plumb in front of the stumps, but Thakur’s control was just what India needed from the other end. Pitching the ball up despite Australia’s sustained aggression, Thakur used the short ball well to get rid of Paine and Cameron Green just when they threatened to accelerate.
Thakur could have easily finished with a maiden fifer as well, playing in only his second Test, but it was he who caught Josh Hazlewood at third man to hand Siraj his fifth. Siraj’s celebration was muted.
He simply looked up at the sky and said a few words.
Brief Scores: Australia 369 & 294 (Smith 55, Warner 48; Siraj 5-73, Thakur 4-61) lead India 336 & 4/0 by 323 runs.
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