In April 2017, a couple of months after Sunrisers Hyderabad shelled out a whopping Rs 2.6 crore for his services, which was 13 times his base price of Rs 20 lakh, Mohammed Siraj had a chat with Scroll.in where he spoke about his aspirations.
Two of the three things he said were: Mitchell Starc is his inspiration and Mohammed Shami is someone he would like to learn from.
As luck would have it, nearly four years later, Siraj made his Test debut at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and in a match that truly announced his arrival at the biggest stage, he filled Shami’s shoes with aplomb and outperformed Starc.
As was the case when he decided to take up the sport professionally, Siraj’s Test debut was, in many ways, accidental.
Till he was about 20 years old, the pacer was busy playing tennis ball cricket in Hyderabad and had never bowled with a leather ball. It was only after his uncle noticed a spark in him that he attempted to make a career out of the sport. And as things turned out, it was only because of injuries to Ishant Sharma and Shami that he first got into India’s squad for the Australia tour before finding a spot in the XI for the second Test.
It’s been a tough road to the top for Siraj. The son of an autorickshaw driver, he has shown remarkable skill and determination to climb through the ranks despite the limited means he started off with. After picking up 41 wickets in nine games in his second Ranji Trophy season, he soon bagged a hefty IPL contract in 2017 before making his T20I debut for India later that year.
Siraj may have only played one ODI and three T20 Internationals so far but his match haul of five wickets in India’s win over Australia in the MCG Test shows that his rapid rise is no fluke.
The thing that stands out about Siraj is his strength of character, which is something Ajinkya Rahane has spoken about at length ever since he took over India’s captaincy from Virat Kohli in the ongoing series.
Having lost his father last month, Siraj decided to stay with the team in Australia despite no assurance of getting a game. And even after the stars finally aligned and he did get his opportunity, the 26-year-old had an unenvious task at hand.
India had suffered an embarrassing defeat in the first Test after being bowled out for their lowest ever total in Test cricket. The morale in the team wasn’t high and that is a far-from-ideal situation for a debutant. Add to that, he was entering a pace attack that has done incredibly well over the past few years and the gap for him to fill was huge.
However, Siraj soaked it all in and fit in seamlessly to deliver a truly memorable performance. He picked the wickets of Marnus Labuschagne and Cameron Green in the first innings with an economy-rate of 2.70, before removing Travis Head, Green and Nathan Lyon in the second innings with an ER of 1.70.
In terms of wickets taken in a match, this was the sixth-best performance by an Indian bowler while making his debut in an away Test.
Ahead of the Melbourne game, Siraj had competition from Navdeep Saini for the third pacer’s spot in the team. While Siraj has shown the ability to move the ball around, get on a roll and run through sides, like he did with an eight-for against Australia A in 2018 and with figures of 3/8 against KKR in IPL 2020, what worked in Saini’s favour was his consistency with line and length.
But having been thrust into the deep end and with India desperate to bounce back from the Adelaide disaster, Siraj showed that he is a complete package by bowling with tremendous discipline each time he was handed the ball.
As Jasprit Bumrah and Ashwin Ravichandran led the attack with relentless accuracy, the Australian batsmen would’ve hoped to get some respite from the debutant’s end but they had none of it. Siraj kept up the pressure brilliantly and played a key role as the Indian attack picked up 20 wickets to win the match.
“Siraj has shown that he can bowl with discipline,” said Rahane after the match. “It’s really difficult for debutants to bowl with discipline but that’s where I think the first-class experience comes in handy.”
Mohammed Siraj's career stats
Former Australia captain Ricky Ponting added: “His discipline has been good, his length has been really good. He had a lot of LBW shouts. So I think he has looked very much a Test match bowler. In fact, he’s actually looked a better bowler than Umesh Yadav as far as I’m concerned. Really good signs for him.”
There’s still a lot for Siraj to prove. He first needs to consolidate his performance at the MCG by stepping up in the remaining two Tests as well, before making room for himself in the attack even after Ishant and Shami return from injury. Having said that though, what’s undeniable is the fact that he played a significant role in one of India’s greatest victories. And he can be mighty proud of that.