Mohammed Siraj leaves uncertainty behind, takes giant step towards ending white-ball conundrum
Mohammed Siraj has given India the quotient they have been missing. A fast bowler who can bowl with pace in the middle overs and excel at it.
The day is November 4, 2017. Venue Rajkot. Mohammed Siraj, making his India debut is welcomed by Colin Munro through a punch off the backfoot for four. Siraj then goes for a change of pace but remains ineffective. In his next over, Munro is even more severe, smashing the youngster for three more sixes. Even Martin Guptill goes after him. Virat Kohli's hands are on his hips, and after a while even MS Dhoni stops going up to him. Siraj has finally some reason to be happy about as he has Kane Williamson to show for his maiden international wicket, but after figures of 1/53, it is merely an afterthought as Munro's century becomes the highlight in New Zealand's 40-run win. Siraj's misery doesn't end there as in his next two T20Is spread across four months, he grabs figures of 1/45 and 1/50 against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh respectively.
Two years later, Siraj, on his ODI debut creates an unwanted record as Australia plunder India and take 76 runs off the pacer. It is the second-most expensive figures by an Indian on debut, and from there starts an almost never-ending wait. Siraj has to wait over three years to play his second ODI game for India. Between then and now, he has already emerged as a star Test performer by shoving Ishant Sharma out of the top three and with Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, formed India's fabled fast-bowling trio. By now, he has picked a five-wicket-haul in Brisbane, in only his third Test and picked up two four-fors in England. He has ticked every box a pace bowler needs to – broken partnerships, produced a wicket against the run of play and even become his captain's go-to bowler. Heck, he has even been subjected to racial slurs and still managed to keep his composure showing the maturity of a senior cricketer. The only thing he hadn't done by then was cement a place in India's white-ball set-up, where Siraj has remained a bit of an underachiever.
Cut to November 22, 2022 – five years removed from that forgettable night at the SCA Stadium. The opponent is the same, but Siraj isn't. New Zealand, at 130/2, are motoring along at over eight runs an over with a well-set Glenn Phillips and Devon Conway looking to launch towards 200. Siraj runs in, generates extra bounce and gets the ball to explode, beating Phillips for pace. This was a batsman who had negated Yuzvendra Chahal's threat, shown no respect to the experience of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and spotted Harshal Patel's slower ones hawkishly. Siraj, like he has in the past, strikes against the run of play and gets a wicket. He races across. Pumps his fists in the air. It is the Gabba all over again.
More importantly, Siraj has given India the quotient they have been missing. A fast bowler who can bowl with pace in the middle overs and excel at it. For Pakistan, Haris Rauf has performed that role brilliantly as the third genuine pacer and for England, it is either Mark Wood or Chris Woakes. India's search might just end with Siraj given the hit-the-deck bowler that he is, constantly hitting the hard length. All four of his dismissals were contrasting. Mark Chapman was reading everyone else well, but was beaten with a ball that seamed away. Phillips was obviously caught off-guard. Jimmy Neesham's was a slower delivery that was angling away and Mitchell Santner was rushed on. Give him even the slightest of favourable conditions and Siraj will make the opposition dance to his tunes.
A cursory glance across Siraj's career will highlight the roller-coaster run he has had. In the IPL, he has leaked runs at almost nine runs an over but in six seasons, there have been several match-winning performances from him too. In Abu Dhabi, Siraj strangled Kolkata Knight Riders with an unheard spell of 3/8. Clearly, Sheikh Zayed Stadium is nothing like Napier's McLean Park and even then Siraj single-handedly choked KKR's innings becoming the first IPL bowler to have produced two maiden overs in a match. Then again, there have been instances where Siraj has bled runs, such as the entire 2022 season for RCB, where he conceded 31 sixes; he was even dropped for a couple of matches. But what is T20 cricket without going for runs? On Tuesday, Siraj and Arshdeep Singh provided a glimpse into India's fast bowling future, with the two young seamers rattling the New Zealand innings. Arshdeep obviously has played a lot more lately, and while Siraj hasn't gotten as many chances, he sure did earn his captain's respect en route to career-best figures of 4/17.
"Siraj did exactly what I wanted from this wicket. In T20 cricket, you definitely get hit. Somewhere down the line, if you try to get saved by going on the defensive as a bowler, you will have good days. But then at the same point of time, if you're having a bad day, it will haunt you. For my bowling unit, my plan is simple. Let's be aggressive. At max, what will happen? We are going to lose. Maybe we will concede 200. That's the worst that will happen. Aggression is not about going for wickets every ball. It's about your behaviour, attitude and body language. Going forward, we will maintain this, and be aggressive as a bowling unit. At the same point of time, we will pick bowlers who can intimidate batsmen as well when needed," Hardik said about Siraj while answering a query from Hindustan Times during the post-match press conference.
When it comes to expressing himself, Siraj is as raw as they come. He has let his emotions rip, wept during the national anthem, endured a huge personal loss when the biggest moment of his career was knocking on the door, invited teammates home and served biryani and occasionally pulled off a Cristiano Ronaldo's 'SIUU' celebration upon picking up a wicket. Ahead of this year's IPL, RCB's Mike Hesson had told HT that the energy Siraj brought to the group was infectious even when he wasn't playing, and that it was a bit unlucky for him to have not replicated his Test success in white-ball cricket. Tuesday, as he orchestrated New Zealand's collapse – eight wickets for 30 runs – could well trigger that change of fortune.
(Cricket enthusiasts in India can watch the 1st ODI against New Zealand on Prime Video on November 25, 2022. Pre-coverage starts from 6 AM onwards)