Mohammed Siraj, Washington Sundar use IPL as launchpad for Test career
When Mohammed Siraj and Washington Sundar were playing cat and mouse with opposing batsmen in Royal Challengers Bangalore’s (RCB) red and black jersey last year, little did they know their India career in whites was going to shoot off. Six months hence, both have played their part in two memorable Test series wins, in Australia and at home against England. Despite the great depth in Indian cricket, both will be now push for berths in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand in June.
In IPL, all Siraj longed for was the new ball. When RCB skipper Virat Kohli saw some life on an Abu Dhabi wicket, he handed the new ball to Siraj. “Virat bhai bole, miyan, ready ho jao (he told me to get ready),” he told teammate Navdeep Saini with a glint in the eye and excitement in his voice. Siraj became the wrecker-in-chief that night as RCB blew Kolkata Knight Riders away for 84. “I was just so excited that I got the new ball. I last got it in my first year (2017) for SRH (Sunrisers Hyderabad),” he said in that chat on IPL website.
Bowling with the hard new ball on a helpful surface is as far as luxuries go for fast bowlers in T20 cricket. “Virat bhai’s plan was to use bouncers,” said Siraj, who turns 27 on Saturday. “But my outswingers were working in the nets, so in my run-up I thought ‘let’s try to pitch it up’.” The change in plan resulted in Siraj getting three KKR top order batsmen.
IPL may have given Siraj a way out of poverty, but bowling length, getting the ball to come in, getting it to go away from batsmen and playing with their patience is his forte. Test cricket allows him to do that, which is why he has taken to long form cricket like a duck to water.
Speaking with Ravichandran Ashwin on the spinner’s YouTube channel, India bowling coach Bharat Arun said Siraj would keep calling him and ask when his chance to play Test cricket would come.
Arun, back in 2016 working as Hyderabad Ranji coach spotted Siraj in the nets, and was impressed with his hunger and desire to succeed. After taking one wicket at an average of 108 in his first Ranji Trophy season (2015), Siraj got 41 wickets in the next, the second best returns for a fast bowler. After that he has played in many India A series under the guidance of Rahul Dravid—home and away, bowling with the red ball to South Africa, England, New Zealand and West Indies.
Setting up Green
When Siraj made his debut in Australia last December, one knew he belonged just the way he set up Cameroon Green—away, away, nip-backer. He did the same to England skipper Joe Root in the fourth Test at Ahmedabad. He hurried Steve Smith to glove a short ball at Brisbane and lured a hamstrung David Warner to poke at wide deliveries.
“Patience se jitna dalenge, bus khud-ba-khud wicket milte rahenge (bowl with patience and wickets will come on their own” is how he described his process in Hyderabadi hindi. But his 16 wickets in five Tests so far, so also his IPL spell last year, show that Siraj can also think on his feet.
Washington’s discovery as a Test cricketer too has surprised many. Twice he was stranded short of a Test hundred in the England series, but with 265 runs in four Tests batting at No.7 or No.8, a promotion may not be far away. People knew he could bat. He would be comfortable facing pace at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai as a 14-year-old. He began as an opener in Madras club cricket and for his state. But only his being a miserly off-spinner in white-ball cricket had hit the popularity charts.
“He has always been a very capable batsmen, but people are realising now. I feel in IPL he hasn’t got a proper run as a batsman. He has had to come down and get quick runs,” said Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who was Washington’s first coach in Ranji Trophy (2016/17) as well as IPL (2017). “He used to open for the state. He has got a lot of shots. Above all, he knows how to get runs, which is something that can’t be taught.”
Now 21, he had a quiet debut domestic season, picked up some batting form the following year, got picked for IPL, and then India T20’s. Tamil Nadu didn’t pick him in the red-ball team after that.
In an IPL game in the UAE against Kings X1 Punjab, Washington was promoted to bat at no.4, above AB de Villiers, to keep a left-right batting combination going. He attempted a no-look six, the shot off Nathan Lyon that became the highlight of his 62 at Brisbane. He couldn’t get the execution right and holed out to deep mid-wicket. The RCB think tank led by Kohli was ridiculed for promoting an untested batsman over the genius of De Villiers.
Washi with the bat
Washington the bowler kept delivering powerplay winning spells while the batsman in him kept knocking, backstage in the nets. All that hard work in training meant when the opportunity came out of nowhere in Australia, Washington, who had stayed back only for net bowling, combined with Shardul Thakur for a 123-run seventh wicket partnership in Brisbane to rescue India from a desperate situation. “He really works hard on his batting, at times to an extent we have had discussions on how he should bowl more as well,” R Ashwin, who handed him his Test cap, told reporters. “He loves his batting. He is innately a batsman, quite a special batsman.”
He did it again at Ahmedabad in the fourth Test with his former U-19 World Cup teammate Rishabh Pant, with a crucial 113-run seventh wicket stand. In both Tests, Pant had played the more pivotal knocks, overshadowing Washington’s innings. Still, steadily on the strength of his defence meshed with elegance in his stroke play, Washington the batsman made his presence felt. While his technique held the batting together, the no-look six—getting down on one knee, under the ball, middling it, dispatching it to the stands and showing contempt to the ball and bowler—head down in follow-though, provided the dazzle.
Kanitkar said he has always had the shot. He remembers Washington playing it in a domestic ODI at the Ferozeshah Kotla. “It’s not as if he does not look at the ball while playing it. It’s just that after connecting he does not watch it till the end,” he said.
At this stage, Washington may be a batsman who can also bowl in Tests, a bowler who also bats in T20s. But with his worth across formats, he will continue to push the selectors. “Washington has got the temperament, so formats won’t matter to him. As a bowler, he is a natural who catches what lengths to bowl very quickly. With the confidence of Test runs, I am sure you will see him scoring more freely in IPL too.”