Mohammed Siraj and setting it up—ask Joe Root
This series hasn’t been kind to fast bowlers. Stuart Broad and James Anderson have bowled together just once. Jasprit Bumrah wasn’t needed for half the series. Ishant Sharma didn’t even get to bowl in the second innings of his 100th Test. It’s just been a monotony of arm balls and off-breaks kicking dust off the pitch, jumping, scooting and snaking through gaps to bamboozle batsmen.
Anderson’s masterful spell of swing on the last day of the first Chennai Test—three wickets in 20 deliveries—was almost an aberration.
Amid all this steamed in Mohammed Siraj, with a slippery bowling action highly similar to Mohammad Amir, to pin Joe Root on his backfoot with a full-pitched delivery angling sharply into him. Root was as plumb as plumb gets. He didn’t even review.
Dismissals like this catch you by surprise on yet another day that belonged to spinners. Not because Siraj isn’t capable of springing one. But because he did it against England’s best batsman in the subcontinent, one with the most assured foot movement. It is only the second time on England’s tour of Sri Lanka and India that Root has been dismissed by a pacer. The England captain erred by playing outside the line of the ball. Maybe he reacted a tad late. That’s what Siraj does to you. The ball had some shine (it was 12 overs old) and Siraj bowled at a good pace, but it was the length and movement off the pitch that undid Root’s well-honed technique.
Ask Siraj about his brief and he gives a simple two-liner: Ek jaga daalte ja. Pressure banega to wicket milega (Keep hitting one spot. If you build pressure, you will get wickets). Yet it’s not so simple. If Siraj’s precision is a result of toiling in Ranji Trophy and India A matches, his ability to move the ball both ways off the same spot can be put down to the skill of landing the ball on its seam every time. And since it’s Root, there has to be an elaborate set-up. Siraj used the entire 11th over for that, pitching the ball around good length to keep Root on the backfoot; making one delivery leave, asking him to defend the next off his body before finally unleashing a short one. Root went for an unconvincing hook that fetched him a boundary. The trajectory viewer for that over showed three deliveries leaving Root, one going straight, one going down the leg and one aimed at his head. Not one delivery was pitched up.
That was it. After an over of staying back in the crease, Root seemed convinced Siraj would stick to the same length. He didn’t, using the drinks break, and the break in the batsman’s concentration, to cash in.
First ball after drinks, the 26-year-old bent his back and pitched fuller. This delivery came in sharply. Root looked surprised as Siraj went on a high-five spree. The plan had been executed perfectly. “Maza aaya out kar ke (enjoyed dismissing him),” Siraj said later. It is not every day that you can to hoodwink a batsman of Root’s calibre, that too in a series where pacers have got so little to bowl with, be it pitch or support. On Thursday, pacers were being rotated at one end with spinners. Stamina isn’t a concern here. All Siraj needed to do was quickly find his length.
Achieving that is difficult when you get very few overs. But line and length are Siraj’s strengths, as Rahul Dravid had observed in a Ranji game some time back. “He doesn’t say much. All he told me was to focus on my line and length,” said Siraj of the time Dravid, the India A coach, had picked him for the series against South Africa A in 2018. In the first unofficial Test in Bengaluru, Siraj took his maiden 10-wicket haul. He may have extensively played white-ball cricket, but at heart Siraj is as good a red-ball operator as you can get. Still early in his career, Siraj knows the importance of altering lengths according to conditions. “In Australia you keep it a little short but in India, you pitch it slightly up.” You tend to leak a few runs, but in the long run it pays.
The least economic of all bowlers on Thursday, Siraj didn’t waver despite conceding a few boundaries. Evidence of that was in Jonny Bairstow’s dismissal. Once part of the same IPL franchise (Sunrisers Hyderabad), Siraj had done his homework. “I had seen in videos how he gets out to incoming deliveries,” said Siraj. Bairstow had been bowled or dismissed leg-before by seamers 10 times in the last two years, the most for any batsman. Siraj did what he does best, hit the spot first up. His sweet spot.