Mohammed Siraj has stormed into the Indian Test line-up that had three domineering quicks in the prime of their career and carved out a place for himself, becoming Virat Kohli’s right hand and arguably shown the world what it is like to be an Indian quick from the Virat Kohli era.
Boxing Day Test.
The moment you hear these words, the eyes light up, there is a tinge of excitement at the prospect of the occasion. It could also make you have butterflies in your stomach if you are making your debut. Your side has been blanked for their lowest ever Test score, there is a lot at stake, your designated captain is off now for more important duties in his life.
You wonder if this will go well, but by the time the series ended Mohammed Siraj was India’s leading wicket-taker with 13 wickets in three games. That sounds good, 13 wickets in six innings. That’s 2 per Test, okay. What’s the big deal? The big deal was when he took those wickets and who he dismissed.
On debut, he first had Marnus Labuschagne, the highest scorer for Australia in that innings, caught at backward square leg and then set up Cameron Green beautifully with the old ball to price his second wicket for that inning.
He took three wickets in the second innings to push his case to bowl with the new ball and in the very next Test, he has David Warner caught in the slips in just his second over. An event that he repeats in the decider Test at Brisbane, this time in the first over itself. Remember, India’s bowling attack had almost no experience to bank on and here was a guy, a couple of Test old, leading the pack.
Australia had got a slender lead of 33 runs and had begun well in their second innings with the openers giving them an 89-run opening stand. The in-form Labuschagne was racing along, batting on 25 in just 21 balls when Siraj got one to bounce more and had him caught in the slips. In the very same over, Siraj had Wade caught down the leg side.
Smith who wasn’t at his best in the series, was threatening to take Australia to a score of safety and it was once again Siraj who came back to dismiss him and register his maiden five-wicket haul. India of course won the Test thanks to the batting heroics but it was the ability of Siraj to provide India with breakthroughs at crucial junctures that helped them immensely.
A bowler who when on song, just about bowled the perfect length that neither makes the batter comfortably on the front foot or on the back foot. Most batsmen fear the ball coming in and when you have someone like Siraj who can literally bowl off-break at that pace, it is going to make the batsman unsure of his both his off stump and the one that goes away after pitching.
England were made aware of what he could do when he got the in-ducker working against both Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root in the fourth Test to break open the game in the first innings for the spinners to take over.
You couldn’t ask for a better start for Siraj, the Test bowler. He was doing all the right things, ticking every box to get himself into the XI more regularly. He would have fancied his chances of playing the World Test Championship Final but it was not to be and he has shown what difference he could have made in the first two Tests of this series against England.
At Trent Bridge, he troubled Zak Crawley with the in-dipper, burnt out two reviews but had him caught behind. In the second innings, it was the enforcer in Siraj who broke two crucial stands to have Rory Burns caught behind and had Bairstow caught on the pull in the deep. The celebration was out and India were more likely to win the Test needing 157 runs on the final day.
Siraj’s intensity with the ball and his energy was seen more in his very Test at Lord’s. Ishant and Bumrah had not been at their best for long which allowed England to have an opening stand for once but as soon as Siraj came into the attack, fourth change, he made things happen.
First up he had Sibley caught at short midwicket, exactly how India had dismissed him at Trent Bridge and then had Haseeb Hameed playing inside the line to hear the death rattle behind him. Root and Bairstow were going along well and it was Siraj who was once again called upon this time to try and rough up Jonny with short stuff.
Siraj followed the plan to the T, going round the wicket and banging it in, angling it across Bairstow who eventually ran out of patience and lobbed one to Kohli at first slip. He was not needed with the bat as Bumrah and Shami had done the unimaginable to get India a score to have a crack at England but despite starting well with the ball, India knew, Siraj knew that his chance will come soon.
Having got England five down, India were sensing a win but a reprieved Jos Buttler and solid Moeen Ali were ensuring India were made to work harder as the ball got old. It was here that Siraj made an impact once again, as he got back to his basics, and bowled a spell from over the wicket to give Moeen a working over. He beat the bat enough times and then eventually got Ali to edge one to his partner in celebration, Kohli.
Sam Curran who has shown a lot more mercy with the bat against India so far, was trapped similarly with the angle making him play and edging behind. Siraj had once again broken a stand and provided India with a supplementary wicket to add to their kitty.
Bumrah dismissed Robinson with a cunning piece of bowling from round the wicket but India still had Buttler to take out to force a win. Siraj who had been bowling the in-dipper regularly, made Buttler think about it more and then pushed one just wide enough outside off to have Buttler feel for him and England’s last hopes were all bit caught in the slips.
For someone who has not even played 10 Tests, Siraj has shown tremendous mind to be aware of his game and skills to execute his game-plan to perfection. When India’s favourite No.11 came out to bat, there were gestures about bowling at the head. Kohli did that once, Siraj responded with a similar one but what followed was nothing of that line of thought.
Siraj first angled one away from James Anderson on a fuller length to have a play and a miss. Next ball, he went slightly back of a length and saw Anderson blocking it. The third ball Jimmy faced, Siraj went around the wicket, slightly fuller, Anderson plays inside the line and is knocked over.
Siraj takes off and along with him a billion people take off in their places, celebrating a remarkable victory. Kohli is off in his plane to celebrate one of India’s finest ever Test wins, before returning to hug Siraj who finished the game with eight wickets. More than those wickets, it’s the manner of them, the time when he takes them that make them stand out.
Siraj in a way is the perfect embodiment of being a pacer of Virat Kohli-led side. He’s quick, intense, in your face, up for a battle but most importantly gets the job done without crossing the line and till the time, he can do that, all of India is going just put their finger on the lips and do a shush.