Mohammed Siraj did not rise through the system in place for Indian cricket. He did not play junior age-group cricket at the highest level. He only started playing with tennis balls, and had no idea about things like seam and swing. But when he became part of the Hyderabad Ranji Trophy set-up, he rose through the ranks quickly. At every stage, he has encountered obstacles and he has shown the ability to overcome them. If not anything, he is a learner and a hard worker. His many coaches would tell you that.
It is therefore fitting that Siraj’s best moment as an international cricketer came with Bharat Arun watching on from the sidelines at the Gabba. The 26-year-old pacer regards the Indian bowling coach his guardian angel. Speaking after his debut at the Boxing Day Test, you could hear it in his voice when he spoke about his former Hyderabad coach and how important it was for him to have a familiar face like that by his side. And it is under Arun’s guidance that Siraj came through arguably one of this toughest days at top level cricket as he finished with a five-wicket haul in Brisbane on the penultimate day of the India-Australia Test series.
If making your debut at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was hard, if dealing with abuse from the crowd at Sydney Cricket Ground was harder, two Test matches later Siraj had the hardest task of his career so far: to lead India’s bowling attack in a series-decider. With the experience of 519 balls bowled in Tests till then, he was the most experienced Indian bowler in Brisbane. At the MCG and SCG, he had Jasprit Bumrah by his side. Bumrah himself is no veteran of the game, having played less than 20 Tests in his career but Siraj had a shoulder to lean on in the middle if and when the going got tough. In Melbourne he had said that conversations with Bumrah helped him stay focussed.
At the end of day three, David Warner had hit three fours off his former IPL teammate. A marker was laid down, with Australia needing quick runs to establish their dominance in Brisbane. When the Aussies began day four of the fourth Test with 4, 4, 4, 4 as their first scoring shots, the pressure was on India’s bowlers. Siraj, and the rest of India’s bowling unit for that matter, did not bowl poorly by any means, but Australia’s openers were taking them on. Suddenly, India’s bowlers were under pressure.
Siraj was hit for four boundaries in his first spell of the day, one of the edges flew past Rohit Sharma at second slip, and Australia’s openers were going at a rapid pace. Siraj was taken off the attack and then some amount of control was established, with Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar stepping in impressively but the hosts were still in control.
Dusting himself off after that opening spell, Siraj produced one of the deliveries of the series to dismiss arguably the batsman of the series as Marnus Labuschagne fended one off to the slips. Two balls later, he had Matthew Wade caught down the leg side. With two wickets in an over, Siraj had put the pressure back on Australia in no time. It was his first turnaround of the day.
But not long after in the second session, Siraj’s day got worse as he dropped Steve Smith at long on off Washington’s bowling. Coming on to bowl two overs later, he dropped Cameron Green off his own bowling.
Once again, things were not going his way. Once again, he picked himself back up. In the very next over, he produced anther ripper to challenge Smith, who had barely seemed in trouble till then. The Gabba pitch had started to misbehave, but Siraj got it in the right areas and kept at it without hiding when things did not go his way.
He kept running in hard, he kept hitting the right areas, just like Bumrah had told him in Melbourne. At the end of Australia’s innings, Siraj had the chance to look upwards and thank his stars with commentator Isa Guha mentioning how proud his father must be.
After all, why do we fall? So that we learn to pick ourselves up again. Siraj did just that at the Gabba on Monday.
“Maturity is one thing [that stands out about Siraj],” India A coach Rahul Dravid had said in 2018 after Siraj had picked up his first 10-wicket haul in a first-class match.
“He is someone who has played very few first-class matches. He hasn’t really been part of the system as he hasn’t played much junior cricket. So he is learning all the time.”
Indeed, it was this ability to stay focussed and learning through his struggles that stood out once again in Brisbane as an Indian attack with a combined experience of nine caps picked up 20 Australian wickets.
As Siraj led his teammates off the pitch, Bumrah was there again, waiting for him just beyond the boundary line. It was a hug that said all that needed to be. A proud teammate, letting a young man know how good he was, on a day when things could have easily gone pear-shaped.
The series goes into the final day with any result possible and both teams in with a chance to lift the Border Gavaskar Trophy, but as the dust settles on this campaign, Siraj can be proud of the fact that he did not let any of the situations he faced deter him. He will return home as one of only 51 Indian Test cricketers ever to pick up a five-for away from home.
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