Reticent Siraj extends red-hot streak by 'not trying anything new'
Mohammed Siraj makes you wonder if he knows how big a deal it is to take eight wickets in a first-class innings. At the press conference after taking career-best figures of 8 for 59, Siraj strutted in calmly, gave insipid answers to highly technical cricket questions, and reassured the journalists that, really, no extra effort had gone in at all into his recent transformation into a red-ball bowling beast. It's a word loosely used to describe sportsmen, but Siraj's streak has been markedly beast-class over the last few weeks. When Australia A's innings ended with Siraj's eighth wicket on the first day, the fast bowler from Hyderabad had completed his third five-wicket haul in four innings, and his tally after a below-average IPL season with Royal Challengers Bangalore is now 37 wickets in eight innings.
Siraj is seemingly a boisterous personality at other times. Just ask Abhimanyu Easwaran, who got the first dose of Siraj's fury when he dropped a catch at gully early in the day. Or every single one of his eight victims, all of whom saw Siraj leap up in celebration near the batting crease. The slim crowd at the Chinnaswamy Stadium will also testify to Siraj's nature, having struggled all day to get a wave out of Rahul Dravid, but barely having to hiss to get an animated response from Siraj as he led the team off.
Still, it is easy to understand why Siraj is calm about what he has done. It's not the first time he has gone on a manic wicket-taking streak in a very short career. It's not even the first time this year.
During the Vijay Hazare Trophy in February this year, Siraj took three five-wicket hauls in six List A games. His career average in the one-day format is 20.78. Before that, and before his journey into the big leagues with a Sunrisers Hyderabad contract in 2017, Siraj had gone on a rampage to take 41 wickets for Hyderabad in the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy season, second on the charts overall behind Anupam Sanklecha's tally of 43. As of Sunday evening, Siraj's first-class bowling average was 18.71.
It is justified, then, when Siraj says he is merely "doing what I always do" to explain this burst of form.
"I was selected for the Indian team in the T20s. And then I came directly to days cricket. Rahul [Dravid] sir told me to focus on line and length and after that I spoke to Bharat Arun (India's bowling coach), asking him what I should do as I transitioned directly into red-ball cricket. He told me to focus on the same things I've always done and not to try anything new. So I kept at it," Siraj explained.
Siraj has said in the past that his biggest strength is the inswinger to the right-hander, and it was screamingly on display through the day. When the ball had just begun to reverse, Siraj had switched to the end that would bring him eight wickets, and Australia's batsmen didn't stand a chance. Impressively, though, Siraj was also managing to swing them the other way, into the left-handers and away from the right-handers. Both Kurtis Patterson and Marnus Labuschagne were out to the same yorker.
"I didn't really learn it from anyone," Siraj said of his new skill, "just every time I have an issue with my bowling, I call Bharat Arun sir and tell him what's going on. He takes a look and sends me video analyses to fix whatever is wrong."
Siraj hadn't played leather-ball cricket until 2015, three years ago, and unlike a lot of bowlers of his generation, is not accustomed to speaking the science of strategy, or about biomechanics when it comes to his craft. As a bowler who thinks in much simpler ways about the game, Siraj can sometimes be frustrating to watch when a plan isn't working.
On many occasions in T20s, Siraj has gone for plenty. In his three T20I games, he has bowled full four-over spells each time, and his economy rate is 12.33. For RCB earlier this year, he conceded 40-plus runs four times in 11 matches. Despite possessing a lethal yorker, Siraj seems to find ways to go for runs.
But Dravid, who has worked with the fast bowler, says Siraj's maturity means he has been learning and getting better, even if he doesn't say so.
"Maturity is one thing," Dravid told ESPNcricinfo before the series. "The last three four-day games, in England and here has been terrific. To get 26 [29 at the time] wickets in the last three games is terrific. It's his maturity that stands out.
"He is someone who has played very less first-class matches. He hasn't been really part of the system as he hasn't played much junior cricket. He is learning all the time. So even in white-ball cricket, I won't be too harsh on him too quickly because he hasn't played that much, may be a little bit of IPL. He had one good season and then he was in and out. It's been great to give him the chance to perform. He has been bowling in much better areas and he has grown better physically."
Usman Khawaja, who was the only batsman who seemed to keep Siraj at bay during his century, said that the bowler's bowling form was comparable to a batting innings: "You start scoring and it just keeps rolling. I think it's the same with his bowling at the moment.
"He just bowled really accurately. He looked like he had a simple plan too. He's got good skills. So obviously he's high on confidence too, because he's taken a few wickets over the last few months. He was telling me how he took a lot of wickets in England too. Looks like he's been bowling pretty well recently."
For now, to prolong the batting analogy, it's an innings of fluidic efficiency. With an India-West Indies Test series lurking, Siraj will do hard to avoid an injudicious slog.