There is some fun in watching Mohammed Siraj do what he does when playing Tests for India. Because, to put it very simply, he makes things happen.
Just seven Tests old, Siraj has on his second overseas tour already bowled the second most overs (77.5) this series, more than Mohammed Shami (68.5) and not far behind Jasprit Bumrah’s 80.4. He has twice been on a hat-trick – at Lord’s, where India beat England by 151 runs – and his 11 wickets have come at 23.45 apiece. That is already as many wickets as Javagal Srinath managed on English soil in three Tests (average 39.36) and Madan Lal did in six (average 47.90) and more than Ajit Agarkar, Manoj Prabhakar and Ashish Nehra took in those conditions.
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Beyond the exuberant persona, wide-eyed theatrics and trademark finger-to-the-lip celebration there lies a brain-and-a-half to Siraj the pace bowler. He is no flash in the pan, as once was surmised by skeptics based on a few IPL matches and two expensive T20I appearances for India in 2017. Siraj has worked hard on his game – harder than others in this Indian camp, some murmur – and his cricketing nous has been honed by a lot of time playing home and away for India A. This skill and attitude, as well as what sports pundits refer to as ‘the x factor’, is what Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri saw in Siraj somewhere along the line and decided to elevate him into the Test squad for the tour of Australia in 2020.
No doubt, playing alongside Kohli for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL and putting in eye-popping performances such as 4-2-8-3 go a long way in winning the Indian captain’s vote of confidence, but it cannot be the reason why Siraj won Test selection. Siraj fits into the prototype of Test cricketer Kohli and Shastri believe this Indian team needs to win matches and take it to the opposition: skilled, yes, but also aggressive and unfazed by opponents’ status and the conditions.
Siraj’s growth in Test cricket has been rapid, but there is a pattern to this growth. He has significant experience of bowling in away conditions for India A, particularly with the red ball, and in the IPL he has honed his ability to bowl yorkers over three seasons.
But, as Irfan Pathan pointed out during Aakash Chopra’s YouTube watch-along during the Lord’s Test, it is the amount of first-class cricket Siraj has played, across countries and conditions, which has put him in such a confident space and which is perhaps why he looked at ease when thrown into Test cricket in December 2020. Before he bowled a ball at Test level, Siraj had sent down 542.5 overs for Hyderabad and 493 for India A in first-class cricket. Along the way, he honed his craft and used every chance to bowl for India A, in countries such as South Africa, England, New Zealand and the West Indies, to accumulate knowledge of those conditions and how to bowl and how not to bowl there.
During his Test first tour, Siraj was given news of his father’s death back in India. The Indian team was in quarantine, and Kohli and Shastri came to Siraj’s room to speak with the uncapped pacer. Out of the immense pain and sense of profound loss, Siraj found the clarity of thought to remain with the Indian team in Australia and credits Kohli’s empathy and support as instrumental in him finding the will to keep bowling in Australia, albeit at the nets initially.
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Handed a Test debut at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground after an injury sustained by Shami during the debacle of 36 all out, Siraj claimed five wickets in a famous, series-levelling win. In his third Test, he found himself leading India’s attack after the further losses of Umesh Yadav and Bumrah. He responded with six wickets in a win for the ages to end Australia’s 33-year unbeaten run at the Gabba.
Back home for a four-Test series versus England, Siraj expectedly sat out two matches as Bumrah and Ishant Sharma returned. He bowled the least of all India’s quicks picked for that series, but impressed in almost each of his spells, particularly in the final Test when he found sharp inwards movement and pace to get Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow out lbw. That he was picked ahead of Umesh Yadav for that match spoke volumes of how India regard Siraj.
A busting fast bowler, Siraj has now won selection in successive Tests against England because of how he has bowled in the nets and because of his ability to produce wickets. He bowls quick, he gets the ball to move late and he bowls with a scrambled seam. He can get the ball to move in sharply and has good control. Clearly the leadership qualities shown in Australia have heightened Siraj’s stock too. With the right guidance and if he stays fit, there is indeed reason to feel that Siraj can play Test cricket for many more years.
In his seventh Test, and first at Lord’s, Siraj impressed with his lengths, albeit after a slightly wayward start. On day three, after the lunch session, Siraj took the old ball and produced a sequence of short-pitched deliveries that added to Bairstow’s vigil being ended by a bouncer from around the stumps. On a tough day where Shami was decidedly off-colour, Siraj stepping up to aid Bumrah and Ishant underlined his value to the finest ensemble of Indian pace bowlers ever.
That Siraj is the fittest of India’s five pace bowlers used in the series is not in doubt. He is, pertinently, also the keenest. He’s always up for a DRS, which has left India in a pickle often. The stats show that when Siraj is bowling, India have been successful in just two of 11 reviews.
Former India opener Wasim Jaffer, something of a Twitter sensation for his memes and sharp wit, took to twitter during the Lord’s Test to say that the DRS needed to be changed to ‘Don’t Review, Siraj’. It is a pun, of course, targeted at winning retweets and likes, but there is a growing concern that Siraj tends to get carried away and that Kohli all too often falls into a trap which ends with India wasting precious reviews.
But that is an issue which can be worked on. What is working brilliantly for Kohli and his fiery – and at times unnecessarily over-the-top – style of captaincy is that Siraj is taking wickets that matter. And during the odd spell that he’s not, he is unsettling batsmen with his pace and lengths and movement. And these two factors, more than anything else, are what sets Siraj apart in the best fast-bowling unit in Test cricket today.