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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Rookie turned regular, how Siraj is unbreakable and undroppable

It’s hard to think of any other Indian pacer — the exceptional Bumrah apart — who had transitioned into Test cricket as smoothly or swiftly as Siraj. Even Ishant Sharma, and to go further back, Javagal Srinath devoured time and games to blossom into potent bowlers.

Written by Sandip G |
Updated: August 25, 2021 3:14:53 pm
India's Mohammed Siraj celebrates after taking the wicket of England's Jonny Bairstow. (Reuters)

The ascendancy of Indian cricket in the last few years has been built on an embarrassment of fast-bowling depth. So much so that even Ravichandran Ashwin, arguably the most potent spinner in the world, hasn’t been able to find a place in the playing XI in the ongoing series.

In usual circumstances, the return to fitness of a fifth-choice pacer should not prompt an alteration to a winning combination, leave alone a headache. But Shardul Thakur, who featured in the Trent Bridge Test, is more than an afterthought, but a mouth-watering temptation. He brings with him a predisposition to probe fuller lengths consistently as well as his capability as a batsman.

Usually, in such situations, it’s the least experienced of the quartet who gets the chop. But it’s not so straightforward with India, as Mohammed Siraj, the least experienced and most inept of India’s lower-order batsmen, is perhaps the least droppable too, along with Jasprit Bumrah. That he has emerged as an undroppable asset, an essential and valuable component of India’s fast bowling riches, just seven Tests into his career in itself is a testimony to the strides he has made since bursting into Test cricket in Australia.

It’s hard to think of any other Indian pacer — the exceptional Bumrah apart — who had transitioned into Test cricket as smoothly or swiftly as Siraj. Even Ishant Sharma, and to go further back, Javagal Srinath devoured time and games to blossom into potent bowlers they eventually developed into. Or Umesh Yadav and Zaheer Khan.

Intuitive in his game awareness, Siraj is sure about what lengths to bowl on a particular surface, and against which batsman. His dexterity to alternate lengths is so efficient that he gives his skipper Virat Kohli strategic flexibility. He can be an all-out strike bowler, the enforcer or even the workhorse. For much of the first innings at Lord’s, he was an enforcer, but in the second, he turned into a strike bowler. In Australia, he was initially a ‘keep thing tight at one end’ bowler. Whatever the role, Siraj always steams in with unrelenting intensity. “You suggest something and he has the skill and temperament to produce it perfectly,” Bharat Arun, India’s bowling coach, once told this paper.

Blessed with tools

It’s not just the mindset or absence of hubris, but also the gifts he possesses that make Siraj an all-conditions bowler. His pace, both types of swings, back-benders, cutters, slower balls, yorkers and bouncers make him a lethal proposition on most surfaces.

But what endears more is his combativeness, the streak of fire-and-brimstone intensity he wears on the sleeve. He is the closest bowler India has in the mould of captain Kohli. The emotional outpouring in the middle, the sometimes churlish shush-up wicket celebrations, the sensibility to complain to the umpires about racist slurs he copped when fielding in Melbourne. With all his raw energy, he could infuse intensity into a dull game. While doing so, he doesn’t step into the realm of theatrics. He is certainly not Sreesanth in a new-fangled avatar. He seems in total control of his aggression, knows when to press the brakes. His captain’s only grouse could be that he persuades him into taking futile DRS challenges often. So was Kohli in his maturation days as captain.

Man for big moments

His intensity could suddenly change the tide and momentum of games. His triple twin blows at Lord’s capture the story to a large extent.

* The English openers seemed to have weathered the new-ball storm in the first innings when he dislodged Sibley. He also got No.3 Haseeb Hameed the next ball.

* Moeen Ali, a familiar nemesis, looked entrenched before Siraj ejected him and blasted out Sam Curran also.

* Jos Buttler seemed to be dragging England to safe shores, and with less than 10 overs remaining, it was not an impossible task. But Siraj broke through his resistance and took out James Anderson.

Each of the situations is painfully relatable to Indian cricket. In the past, first-change bowlers have squandered away the new-ball pressure, the opposition lower order has clung on defiantly and turned the match on its head, unsuspecting lower-order heroes have emerged – India have made heroes out of Ali and Curran several times in the past. Even Anderson’s Test-highest of 81 has come at India’s expense. But Siraj ensured that such themes would not recur. He has a solution to untie every knot.

Or in other words, he brings to the bowling group the coldly- termed phrase ‘killer instinct’. That elusive trait the top Australians and Pakistani seamers seemed to possess in gallons. Better call it sheer bloody-mindedness, that steely will to emerge victorious each and every time one is on the field. Nothing breaks him, not the circumstances he grew up in, not the early troubles adjusting to international cricket in his white-ball auditions, not the death of his father a few days before his Test debut.

It’s perhaps too preposterous to call him, on the evidence of seven Test matches, a real deal. A fast bowler’s career is risk-fraught. Injuries and workload could wrack them; flaws could sneak into his technique, rhythm could evade, the swing could taper off. But for all the intangibles, Siraj exudes a wave of assurance that makes one believe that he indeed is a real deal.

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