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Mohammed Siraj: An ace up India’s sleeve

Three years ago, in the middle of a dream spell, wherein he picked 37 wickets in just eight first-class innings, Mohammed Siraj produced a stunning exhibition of reverse-swing bowling against the touring Australian ‘A’ side in Bangalore. In his first spell with the semi-old ball, he picked four wickets for 10 runs. Then late in the third session, he returned to blast another four with an older ball.

The modes of dismissals captured the story. Four of the wickets were pinned in front. Two others, including then-rookie Marnus Labuschagne, were bowled. The rest were caught behind.

But Siraj, self-effacing to a fault, feigned ignorance of the mechanics of his craft. “It just happens, I don’t know how it happens. I didn’t really learn (reverse swing) it from anyone. I just sent videos to Bharat Arun sir and he sends me feedbacks and tips,” he said. Too simple an answer to be believable. He is almost like a young Waqar Younis. Speaking of his skill as an unknown, unexplainable, indefinable blessing.

Reverse swing indeed induces mystique and mystery. James Anderson left Indian batsmen entranced in a spell of devastating beauty in the second innings. His Indian counterparts strove and at times produced reverse swing, but not with the telling effect of Anderson. The SG ball in Chepauk began to reverse as early as the 25th over. Imagine how resourceful Siraj would have been.

But difficult as it is to turn the clock back, the tactical mistake could be rectified by drafting Siraj for the second Test. There are more reasons to pick him than ignore him. The scale of logic is tilted heavily in his favour. Not just for his ability to find reverse swing, but the multi-value mega-pack that he is.

Of all the fit and ready pacers for this series, Siraj arguably has the most natural in-swinger. The in-swinger to Siraj is like the cover drive to Virat Kohli. A perfectly-shaped in-swinger, fizzing in the air and hissing from the surface, is a reassuring sight, a sign that all is well in his world. When he gets his in-swingers right, he gets a kick of invincibility, as he was in Australia.

Both Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah are primarily seam bowlers, who naturally hit a harder length. Though both have mastered the art of shuffling lengths, and could devilishly bend the ball into right-handed batsmen, neither does it as punctually as Siraj. They might purchase more awkward bounce and lift, but not conjure pronounced movement as Siraj, chiefly because they don’t, instinctively, bowl as full as Siraj does.

The virtues of bowling full in the subcontinent are many, that is if one has the pace and the ability to swing (Siraj clearly has). More often than not, batsmen are inclined to play their strokes; the more strokes they play, the more mistakes they might incur. More often than not, it is the only way to purchase some movement, be it seam or swing. Moreover, they bring in all three modes of dismissals into play: the bowled, lbw and nicking off.

No wonder then that most of the subcontinental greats were full-ball virtuosos. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis for instance. Most of the overseas greats who flourished in these climes were full-ball exponents too. Dale Steyn and Malcolm Marshall for example. While all of them possessed an infinite mastery over different lengths, the full swinging ball was their weapon of mass destruction in the subcontinent.

For, irrespective of surfaces, a full, swinging delivery, even with the minutest shift in direction, could torment batsmen. Pace and bounce could be more thrilling, but swing and seam are more magical. James Anderson offered ample evidence of it on the final day in Chepauk with a burst of brutal beauty.

Out-swinger, an addition Watching Anderson, Siraj would have been reminded of his post-tea spell in Melbourne, when he pinned Cameron Green with a fiendish in-swinger, setting him up with a spate of out-swingers. The latter is a recent addition. He always possessed one but was reluctant to use it as often as he does the in-swingers.

But with tips from Dale Steyn, his Royal Challengers Bangalore colleague, he was more upbeat about bowling out-swingers. “I worked really hard on bowling outswingers during lockdown just like I did for India ‘A’. As I didn’t know how to bowl it well, I even took help from Dale Steyn during IPL, and now I feel confident bowling them,” he had said in Sydney.

The proficiency of his out-swinger is so emphatic that it almost comes across as his stock ball. It looks as natural as his in-swinger is. And it should not surprise if the out-swinger ends up as his most potent weapon in the future.

Thus, it would have made immense sense if he were picked. More so as Ishant was returning from a lengthy lay-off—and though he bowled with heart and craft, he was not at his absolute sharpest — and Bumrah was just back from an injury, and often lagged in his intensity.

Both were gullible of not bowling as full as the strip demanded. They didn’t commit batsmen onto the front-foot often enough. Joe Root, at the start, hangs on his back foot, making it difficult for him to step forward to drive fluently off his front foot when the ball is pitched up on a good length between the off and fifth stumps. But he was barely tested with full balls.

It’s when the team perhaps missed the services of Mohammed Shami or even Umesh Yadav, whose mastery of Indian conditions is stupendous. Not only for the skills Siraj offers but also for the form and frame of mind, besides the spunk and energy. In just his third Test, he was guiding an inexperienced pace-trio like a seen-it-all veteran.

Precisely for these reasons, he makes a compelling, if irrefutable, case for getting picked for the second Test. He could replace either Sharma or Bumrah (more so with the emphasis on rotation), or he could displace one of the listless support spinners. In an ideal world, that is if Ravindra Jadeja were fit, Siraj would have been an automatic choice in the preferred three-prong pace attack. But Jadeja’s absence meant an extra batsman, and hence a compromise was struck. The faults of the ploy were exposed, and it has come to a stage wherein India need a quick turnaround. Siraj was one of the catalysts of change in Australia and he could be the one at Chepauk too.

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