Mohammed Ismail gathers himself, clears his throat, and tries his best to control his emotions, before uttering the barely audible: “I wish abba (late Mohammed Ghouse) would have been alive today.” Ismail, elder brother of Mohammed Siraj, Team India’s latest pace sensation, says he’s a bit groggy, after being up in the wee hours on Saturday morning and being glued to the television set to see Siraj make a sensational Test debut at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. “After what we have gone through over the last month, this is a proud moment for us. I want to thank Allah. Abba always wanted Siraj to play Test cricket for India. He would always say, ‘Desh ka naam roshan karo,” Ismail tells The Indian Express over phone from his Towli Chowki residence in Hyderabad.
It was Ghouse, an auto-rickshaw driver’s unflinching support that fuelled Siraj’s cricketing aspirations. But on November 20, little more than a month before the 26-year-old’s Test debut, Ghouse passed away. The stringent quarantine restrictions meant Siraj couldn’t return to India to be with his family to participate in his father’s final rites. “Stay strong for your father’s dream.” Those encouraging words from captain Virat Kohli helped him stay back in Australia with the Indian team. However, Ismail recalls a phone call he received days after Ghouse’s demise. “He called me from Australia and didn’t say anything. All I could hear was the sound of him sobbing inconsolably,” Ismail recollects.
It was his father’s constant encouragement that gave Siraj the confidence to bunk classes and sneak past his strict, disciplinarian mother Shabana Begum to play tennis-ball cricket with Ismail and friends in his mohalla near Masabtank. Despite being a hit, Siraj never had aspirations to play for India, nor did he have any formal training to become a fast bowler. At 18, a friend introduced him to Mabboob sir, a genial middle-aged man, who runs an HCA-affiliated coaching centre called Charminar Cricket Club. Siraj’s life took a dramatic turn since then. “I was impressed by what I saw. He was raw but had the ability to extract good pace. In fact, on his debut against a club called Balaji CC, he picked five wickets,” Mabboob notes.
WATCH : R Sridhar interviews debutant Siraj with a Hyderabadi twist
— BCCI (@BCCI) December 26, 2020
Siraj’s progression to Hyderabad’s U-23 squad was pretty dramatic, but Mabboob says his ward still lacked the maturity and awareness to make the shift to the international stage. “I remember on one occasion, HCA had organised a fitness camp for fast bowlers of the U-23 squad at Secunderabad Gymkhana ground. Everyone assembled that morning, but Siraj was missing. When I later enquired, he said, ‘Sir, I don’t have the money to travel to and fro from Hyderabad and Secunderabad. How much will I trouble my father for money.’” Those words still rankle Mabboob. “I told him, never hesitate to ask me for any sort of financial help.”
Siraj made his Ranji Trophy debut for Hyderabad in 2015, and the credit for making the out-of-the-blue pick goes to Jyothi Prasad, the then chairman of selectors. “I saw him at an U-23 game against the Railways, and he was bowling really quick. He was still raw, but I was excited to see him bowl, because after a long time I was seeing someone in Hyderabad bowling at 140kmph,” Prasad reminisces.
According to Prasad, Siraj benefited enormously in his first season as a first-class cricketer, because the Hyderabad coach was Bharat Arun, who is the current bowling coach of the Indian team. “Bharat played a key role in his evolution as a fast bowler. He fine-tuned his skills and it was because of him that he landed an IPL contract two years later, in 2017 for the Sunrisers Hyderabad,” Prasad chimes.
MSK Prasad, the former chairman of selectors, is among the many, who were bewitched by Siraj’s splendid bowling performance in Melbourne today. “What can I say? I mean the way he was bowling today, it didn’t look like he was making his Test debut.”
— BCCI (@BCCI) December 25, 2020
Prasad, who has watched Siraj from close quarters, attests it’s because of the abundance of fast bowlers that Team India have at their disposal that Siraj had to wait so long to make his Test debut. “In a sense, Siraj’s story is similar to that of T. Natarajan’s as both have made it from humble beginnings. There’s never been any doubt in my mind about his credentials as a red-ball bowler. Because we have an abundance of fast-bowling talents that Siraj had to take the route of IPL and T20s before making it in long-form cricket. Look at his first-class numbers, they are really impressive,” he avers.
In 38 first-class games, Siraj has accounted for 152 scalps, averaging a shade over 23, with four five-wicket hauls. In 2016, he picked 41 wickets, galvanising Hyderabad to the Ranji Trophy knock-outs for the first time in five seasons. Since then, he has been a regular at India A tours, all of which have been instrumental in his seamless transition from a raw pacer to a bowler with astute cricketing nous.
CV Milind, his Hyderabad team-mate, believes the reason for Siraj making such rapid strides is because he is a keen learner and never misses out on an opportunity to rack the brains of his bowling coaches. “He is much more than just raw pace. He has evolved into a shrewd, thinking bowler with the ability to outsmart opposition batsmen.” Milind cites the example of Cameron Green’s dismissal. “Just look at the way he bowled to Green. He got four deliveries to move away from the right-hander, and then just when he was least expecting it, Siraj slants it back and gets Green trapped lbw. For a debutant to execute that on Day 1, it just shows his maturity,” Milind adds.
The successes on the cricket field have not changed Siraj’s outlook or demeanour. His friends and members of his extended family still gush about his non-fussy and humble ways. Last year, the family shifted from their modest rented apartment in Masabtank to a more lavish setting at Towli Chowki, near Mehdipatnam. Back in Hyderabad, he is known to have funded wedding ceremonies of friends and relatives. “Allah has been kind to us. So, Siraj is making it a point to give back to society. He is really large-hearted and never stops even once when it comes to going out of his way to help others. That’s been his nature,” Ismail says.
Ismail hopes Siraj’s incisive spell on Day 1 is just the start of a long and fruitful international career. There won’t be any wee-hour tranquility for Ismail in the next four days.
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