India vs England, 4th Test: What Makes Mohammad Siraj Special?
It took just five balls for Mohammad Siraj to get under Ben Stokes’s skin. Siraj had just produced a peach to nail Joe Root in front of the stumps and out walked Stokes. It was the 13th over of the England innings, Siraj’s fourth, and Stokes tried to leave the first ball, but could not, edging thickly but safely to the slips cordon.
Stokes left the next one alone, defended the third, and edged again. The final ball of the over was a bouncer, sharpish, but Stokes swayed comfortably inside it.
Stokes then had enough words with the bowler for Virat Kohli to get riled up, stepping away from his fielding position to give it back to the England allrounder, to the point that umpire Nitin Menon had to intervene.
“Stokes exchanged a few words with me, abused me,” said Siraj at the end of the day’s play. “But that happens on the ground. I told Kohli this was happening and he took care of the issue.”
As much as Siraj is a delight off the field, as yet media raw and not spouting cliches, he is someone who is composed on the field. Siraj takes genuine joy in playing the game— as evidenced in the manner in which he celebrated R Ashwin’s hundred in the second Test in Chennai — but he is able to keep his calm because he knows exactly what he is doing with the ball.
Siraj maybe only four Test matches into his career, but, at nearly 27, he is no naive newcomer, and has extensive experience in first-class cricket. And, if the Indian think tank picked him to play the fourth Test against England as the second quick bowler, ahead of Umesh Yadav, they had to rate him highly.
In his last 10 Test matches at home Umesh Yadav has 48 wickets at an average of 16. The only thing that stopped the team from slotting him right back in was that he was returning from injury, whereas Siraj had played a strong hand in Australia.
But what else is it that makes Siraj special?
For one thing, he is a cerebral fast bowler. Siraj is successful not merely because of his physical skills. He can swing the ball both ways and move it off the pitch. He has a bouncer with which he can surprise batsmen and his action is repeatable and lends itself to accuracy. But, knowing how to deploy these facets of fast bowling, how to work out batsmen, how to lay a trap and set up batsmen is what makes Siraj special.
On the day, on a pitch that was good for batting, it was not simply a case of putting the ball in the right areas and expecting the pitch to do all the work.
Take the dismissal of Root, England’s best batsman by a long way. “I thought it was a nice set-up. I had bowled away going deliveries to him in my previous over,” explained Siraj. “So, when I was coming for the fresh over, I decided to try an in-coming ball. It came out as I planned and I was able to hit Root’s pads. It gave me a lot of joy.”
Jonny Bairstow, who was just beginning to look like he had worked out his best methodology to score runs in India, suffered a similar fate when he was on 28. This time the ball started from outside the off, but it not only swerved in, but it also continued its inwards movement towards the right-hand bat after pitching. The inside edge of the bat was comfortably beaten, clipped the pad.
The appeal was spontaneous and insistent, and the umpire’s finger went up. Bairstow reviewed the decision and shook his head in disappointment when he saw the replay on the big screen. Perhaps he thought the appeal was for a catch behind, and he had definitely not hit the ball, perhaps he felt he was unlucky, because the question of height was answered with the umpire’s call. But, looked at objectively, it was a perfectly pitched delivery, taking the top of the stump, which is exactly what coaches want bowlers to do.
“I had seen some videos of Bairstow batting and from that, I felt that he is troubled by the in-coming balls,” said Siraj. “So when I got a chance to bowl to him after the tea interval, I decided to try that. The ball tailed in as planned and I had the wicket.”
Not only had Siraj done his homework, but he also had the ease to deploy the sucker ball at the right time, and the skill and control to execute his plan. Experts and commentators sometimes say that a bowler has the knack of taking wickets. That, is not some inherent luck or random event, it is exactly what Siraj did, combining, planning, timing and execution. When it comes off, there are few better sights in cricket for a bowler.