RCB boy Mohammed Siraj's trial by fire

Mohammed Siraj played his first Test at the historic Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day. After three Tests in the Border-Gavaskar series, he was India’s highest wicket-taker with 13 scalps at an average of 29.54.

By the end of the tour of Australia, Mohammed Siraj was leading the pace attack, taking his maiden five-for in Brisbane.   -  Getty Images

Mohammed Siraj has troubled top batsmen with probing spells in his barely three-month-old Test career, but opening the bowling against Australia in mid-January wouldn’t ordinarily have counted among them. However, this was no ordinary January.

India was without Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Not one of their first- or even second-choice bowlers was in the XI. With the Border-Gavaskar series still at 1-1, Siraj, playing only his third Test, charged in from over the wicket to David Warner and slanted one across that ended up on the off stump. Warner, without getting to the pitch of the ball, nicked it to second slip where Rohit Sharma took an outstanding low catch.

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“It was just my third Test, but I was the most experienced in that pace attack,” said Siraj with a smile. India’s pace attack in the fourth Test comprised Siraj, T. Natarajan, Navdeep Saini and Shardul Thakur. While Natarajan was making his debut, Saini and Thakur had played one Test each.

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Siraj played his first Test at the historic Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day, and by the end of the tour, he was leading the pace attack, taking his maiden five-for in Brisbane. After three Tests in the Border-Gavaskar series, he was India’s highest wicket-taker with 13 scalps at an average of 29.54. “I was playing the role of a senior bowler [at the Gabba]. Head coach Ravi Shastri and bowling coach Bharat Arun asked me not to overthink and stick to the basics that brought me success at the first-class level. In Brisbane, I didn’t do anything different from Melbourne or Sydney.”

Siraj, one of the best red-ball bowlers in Indian domestic cricket, had played 38 first-class games for Hyderabad before his Test debut. The first-class experience had helped and so had the last three seasons, where he had been a regular in the India A setup, touring England, New Zealand, the West Indies and South Africa. Siraj also credited South African bowling legend Dale Steyn, his teammate at Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in the 2020 Indian Premier League, for his inputs. “I used to ask him to keep an eye on my bowling in the nets. He helped me get command over the outswing, which helped me on the Australian tour,” said Siraj.

Siraj was signed by Royal Challengers Bangalore for Rs2.60 crore in the 2018 IPL auction and the 27-year-old feels playing under Virat Kohli in both the T20 extravaganza and national colours has helped him with the transition. “Virat bhai understands my bowling style and my strengths and weaknesses,” he says.   -  K. Murali Kumar

 

Siraj was signed by RCB for ₹2.60 crore in the 2018 IPL auction and the 27-year-old feels playing under Virat Kohli in both the Twenty20 (T20) extravaganza and national colours has helped him with the transition. “Virat bhai understands my bowling style and my strengths and weaknesses. So he knows when to get me into the attack,” Siraj said. “That’s a real plus for me, especially when I’m playing for India. My IPL stints helped me when I started playing for the country. Here [in the IPL], you are playing with and against some of the best batsmen in the world. When you get their wickets, it does a world of good to your confidence.”

Last year, Siraj became the first man in IPL history to bowl two maiden overs in the same game. He picked up three wickets against Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) for just eight runs, finishing with the second-most economical figures in IPL 2020. “I didn’t even know I would be bowling in the Powerplay in that match,” he said. “I was under the impression I would be first change. But when Virat bhai gave me the new ball, I was happy. I had been practising with the new ball in the nets and now had the opportunity to put it to use. The plan was simple: bowl in the right channels and let the pitch do the rest.” RCB steamrolled KKR by eight wickets and Siraj was named Man of the Match for his mind-boggling figures of 4-2-8-3.

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Siraj was a nets bowler in Hyderabad when India bowling coach Bharat Arun, who was with RCB at the time, saw him bowl. Arun was impressed and made a case for Siraj. “He has played a huge role in my career,” Siraj said. “He saw me bowl in the nets and took an interest in me. Next year, he became the Hyderabad coach in the Ranji Trophy. He gives his bowlers all the freedom and backs them no matter what. That is a big advantage.”

With one One-Day International World Cup and two T20 World Cups scheduled for the next three years, two of which will be played in India, Siraj dreams of representing his country at the big-ticket events. “But I’m not getting too far ahead of myself,” he said. “The key is to give 100 percent in every game I play. Hopefully, the dream to play the World Cup will eventually come true.”