A leading man facing unprecedented pressure extending beyond the field, a coach looking to kickstart the stint by shedding his good boy image, and a buoyant pacer primed to breathe fire into the attack against an opposition led by a dogged man ready for tough contests and tougher conversations at home. India’s tour of South Africa is set to be the stage for overarching narratives
Neil D’ Costa remembers the muffled respect in the voice of Marnus Labuschagne earlier this year. Labuschagne, who averages over 60 in Test cricket, was talking about Mohammed Siraj to his personal batting coach D’Costa. “He dangles it in and suddenly gets to hold its line. Have to be careful against this bloke”.
He would get out to Siraj in the leg-side trap in Melbourne, Siraj’s first Test in that series, but his own words would buzz alive in the second innings of the final Test in Brisbane. With the series on the edge, Siraj would dangle it in and get it to hold its line. Labuschagne would get squared up, and nick to slip. D’Costa chuckles at the memory and adds, “He didn’t listen to his own advice! It was a damn fine ball though.” Indeed.
At the start of the year, at the initial sighting, a thought bubbled up: that Siraj can throw up these ‘damn fine balls’ every now and then. Until Bharat Arun, the then bowling coach, triggered one to rethink that hasty summary. “Yes, but also no, pa. Watch his entire spell, carefully. For a boy in his first year, he has the knack of constructing a spell. Sonne pechaa keppaan (he will listen to what you tell him), and reproduce it but he keeps thinking and working hard,” Arun had told this newspaper. “These kinds of balls are very important as he has a knack of going beyond the surface and conditions to produce them. The batsman can’t relax, which means there is a hesitation always in the back of his mind as the spell keeps developing. (Jasprit) Bumrah has that effect.”
A few months later, in England, Arun would give Siraj a new toy. He would not only dangle ‘em in, but start playing havoc with this new fascination – the scrambled-seam ball. Up the slope at Lord’s, it would scramble across, and then cut away from the left-handers. Moeen Ali was the one doing the dangling this time, and as Ravichandran Ashwin would say on his YouTube channel, for some time only two players were in action: Siraj and Rishabh Pant, the wicketkeeper, as “fast off-breaks”, in Ashwin’s phrasing, kept cutting away from the left-hander. “How is he able to use the slope so effectively? Not even one ball pitched on the seam,” Ashwin would wonder.
Arun had prepped him about the scrambled-seam ball to exploit the Lord’s slope and Siraj had run away with it like a kid. An equally-excited Sachin Tendulkar was moved enough to tweet a video explainer about it. Tendulkar first gave a demo of the back-spin Siraj imparts with his fingers running down the seam when he wants the ball to swing away. Then, Tendulkar showed how Siraj cuts his fingers at release for the in-cutter to yank the shape of the ball and send it tilting all scrambled towards the batsmen. The admiration in Tendulkar’s eyes tells a story of its own.
Why Siraj would be a hit in SA
Another eager pair of eyes has been tracking Siraj this year. L Balaji, former India bowler and the bowling coach of Chennai Super Kings these days who once had Inzamam-ul-Haq bewildered with a crazy bender that curved from leg to off, is floored by Siraj’s continuous evolution.
And Balaji points out the most important element in Siraj that could make him a very dangerous bowler in South African conditions. His open-chested action.
“All these open-chested bowlers who bring the ball back in and get it to straighten off the pitch have had the maximum success in South Africa,” Balaji warms up.
“The angle which comes in naturally (from the release point) towards off and middle, those guys I have seen have the greatest success. They make the batsmen play most of the time. Side-on right-handers have the angle that allows batsmen to leave the ball a lot more easily. It’s not too much movement in the air that works in South Africa but there is always help from the pitch for open-chested bowlers – because of their angle, they create an illusion of the ball coming in towards off and middle, and those who can get it to straighten from there do the maximum damage,” Balaji says.
“With open-chested bowlers, even when they just about straighten the ball, batsmen seem to get opened up almost. A lot more than they would to a similar straightener from a side-on bowler. The angle of open-chested bowlers like Bumrah and Siraj makes the ball seem to be coming in and they are committed to play. Then that straightening, or even the ball that doesn’t come in that much, troubles them. They tend to test both the edges of the bat more.”
The nature of the bounce and the pace of the ball in such scenarios too play their part. “In South Africa, it’s not steep bounce but more like tennis-ball bounce, which means the batsmen need to keep adjusting as the level and pace of bounce isn’t always same. Once you get them to play the line, minute deviations or extra bounce when straightening can do the trick. Short balls from open-chested bowlers are also more effective against right-handers because of the speed and the angle,” Balaji says. “That’s why I think Siraj will be successful there.”
Deep Dive into Siraj’s art
Something seems always cooking when Siraj is on, irrespective of the age of the ball or nature of the pitch or atmospheric conditions. Suddenly, there seems to be seam movement, signs of life in the tired ball and tiring pitch, and if nothing happens, his manic energy, from the run-up to the follow-through, suggests something is happening.
There is no apparent template that a batsman, used to more conventional bowlers, can crack. Watch the bowling arm. The load-ups tend to be different. At times, he almost touches the right shoulder as he gathers. Sometimes, he just stops it adjacent to the face. He can yank the hand holding the ball sideways, towards his left eye, and release. And that ball can surprise right-handed batsmen by tilting away. In fact, from the dreamy ball that clattered Prithvi Shaw’s off-stump in the Indian Premier League to the Labuschagne ball that straightened, the arm has tended to go across Siraj’s face prior to release.
The bowling arm can get all crooked above the elbow, twisted at an angle. It hangs in there almost, bio-mechanically loose, pliant to release the ball from weird angles.
The non-bowling arm too can have a life of its own. When he wants the ball to angle in, it can tend to go a touch wider. When he wants to get the ball to straighten, it can shoot up a tad straighter. And at times, it can do one thing, and the ball other. Just like he can have the shiny side on the outside for the in-cutter but also have it on the inside and still attempt the same ball.
Even the manic run-up is idiosyncratic. A couple of hops in the beginning kickstart the frenzy. Siraj can then run in all cross-legged, as if both legs want to tread on the same thin straight line rather than sprint adjacently. He can also almost tilt his body to his left as he is running in, more front-on than he already is.
One can pick any of his dismissals and marvel. Remember the Steve Smith one? Not quite the Sreesanth snorter to Jacques Kallis, but almost. This one kicked up from a fuller length and pinged Smith’s gloves. Or the knockout of Jos Buttler with the old ball. That angled front-arm release again and the ball straightened to kiss the edge.
The front-on release draws batsmen in line to play. “Not draws or tempts but forces them to play,” Balaji corrects. “That is the main difference. A side-on bowler has to use his skill to tempt and lure. These open-chested ones with the angled point of release force them. Because if you don’t and the ball keeps coming in with the angle, you will lose your stumps or be LBW.
“From that angle, if the ball is straightening, it’s actually a leg-cutter almost. When a side-on guy does that, the ball would more often than not beat the bat. Not with Siraj or a Bumrah.”
So, he isn’t wasting most of his deliveries. Unlike with most others, the batsmen can’t relax and watch out just for that one odd-behaving delivery. Even against the staple ball, the one coming in, he can’t be sure how much it would tail in. The LBW and the nick are always hovering. It can cut in more than the batsman thinks to nail him LBW. And when it doesn’t and the batsmen are covering for the line, it can get the edge. Remember Cameron Green and Siraj’s dismantling of him? Forever wary of the LBW, he kept pushing and prodding. And then edged the straightener.
Left is right too
The left-handers haven’t been spared either. David Warner tried his best to push cautiously inside the line of the ball that started from middle and leg in Brisbane. But it was full enough to take a piece of the outside edge. In comparison, the England bowlers were a bit shorter and their more conventional release points have allowed Warner to push inside the line successfully. Moeen and Sam Billings too have been sawn off by cracking anglers. Dean Elgar will have his job cut out at the top. If he survives Bumrah, he will have Siraj to contend with.
“In South Africa, you don’t want the batsmen to be leaving easily. There is not much swing. A fifth-stump line is pretty much useless to quality batsmen as they can leave you all day, if they wish, or drive or punch if lengths err. You want to make them play with that inward tilt,” Balaji says.
Another appreciable trait is that Siraj can hit full lengths comfortably when he wants. The action doesn’t fall away.
“If you have a back-leg release, it’s good. By that I mean if the action completes fully, the load you have gathered is dispersed properly,” Balaji informs.
“You’ve seen Zaheer Khan, right?” But neither did he have the manic run-up or even a visible follow-through. He would almost walk away from the scene of crime.
“You know why? That back-leg release. He could finish the action completely. There was no breaking of it in his follow-through. From the crease, how your back and front leg holds your action in your follow-through is the key to finishing your action. Some put so much stress on the front foot at release that they need to scramble after the follow-through to finish it.”
Like Ishant Sharma. “Zaheer didn’t have to. Siraj too has it. He does have more of a follow-through but that’s because of his high-energy run-up and just the energy he possesses. The action in itself doesn’t quite need him to. He has it all covered by the time the ball is released. The action finishes superbly. That’s why his lines and lengths are so good, and he can switch them comfortably. Like Zaheer. You need a strong body to do that. That’s another reason I think Siraj, for all his restless energy, can last long.”
Everything is ripe then for Siraj to succeed in South Africa. “He can surprise you in any spell in the day,” the coach remembers Labuschagne telling him. An inexperienced South African batting line-up will do well to remember that. If they let their guard down, the man from Hyderabad, who used to pester Arun for couple of years about when he can get into the Indian team, will take them down.