Mohammed Siraj: The torchbearer of India’s new-ball resurgence

Anrich Nortje clocked an average speed of 146kmph in the decider, five yards quicker than his mean at Ranchi. There was a rhythmic flow to his run-up, with every sinew operating in perfect harmony. 15 runs came off his unchanged burst of five overs, six of those down to a dropped catch by the rope. Ishan Kishan swayed for cover twice in that spell of impassioned intensity, but Nortje was far from done, reserving the energy to pull off a diving stop at mid-wicket. He’d given it his all, but South Africa just didn’t have enough runs in the bank.

For, the overnight rain in Delhi worked against the Proteas. The moisture trapped beneath the surface led to spongy bounce early on, and Shikhar Dhawan lobbed the new ball to Washington Sundar after electing to field first, rather unhesitatingly. Armed with a silly point, the off-spinner alternated between targeting the pads of Quinton de Kock and tossing it wide to induce a jail-breaking shot. Right on cue, the extra bounce resulted in a top edge as the failure to use the depth of the crease while cutting belied the nine years of IPL experience de Kock has behind him.

The sogginess of the outfield might’ve denied Janneman Malan a boundary when he punched Mohammed Siraj on the rise, but there was none fetching the cover drive hit with a high elbow. Born and brought up on spicy decks, the right-hander is adept off the backfoot, evident in the pull he hammered after his gentle shimmies down the track coerced Siraj into shortening his length. It was a response that would’ve deflated the ego of many a fast bowler and possibly nudged them into eschewing the bumper, but Siraj knew the pitch was holding a fraction and a short ball that reared up belatedly could land the batter in a soup.

Unfazed by the couple of boundaries he’d given away, Siraj set about laying the trap for Malan. He drew him on the front-foot thrice – the length of each delivery fuller than the previous one – before summoning the square leg to the fence as he readied himself for the killer blow. Siraj bent his back and caught Malan unawares, his body still lunging a little forward in anticipation of the continuity of the trend. While his hand-eye coordination made up for the uneven weight distribution to an extent, he couldn’t get enough elevation on the pull to clear square leg.

Meanwhile, Avesh Khan played the ideal foil and tied one end up to allow Siraj to be relentless in attack. The wicket of Malan was a bold validative tick to the efficacy of the short ball, and Reeza Hendricks was next in the firing line. He took his eyes off the well-directed, steep bouncer and checked his shot, as India reduced South Africa to 26/3, their best bowling show in the PowerPlay since the 2019 World Cup.

”Performing against a good team gives you a lot of confidence. I had to take the responsibility. I try to figure out the right lengths at the start of the innings. As a fast bowler you need that fire and passion inside you. Happy with my performance, and happy to get this Player of the Series award,” Siraj said of his outing that may draw the attention of the selectors as they look to fill a Jasprit Bumrah-sized hole ahead of the T20 World Cup.

South Africa’s middle-order had a lot of catching-up to do as India had strung together 50 balls without a boundary till the onset of the 16th over. The spinners, however, toppled the remaining dominoes with consummate ease. Shahbaz Ahmed beat Aiden Markram in flight, Sundar went through the defences of Miller, and Kuldeep Yadav blatantly exposed South Africa’s inability to read wrist-spinners out of the hand, save for Marco Jansen, of all people, who did decipher the wrong ‘un.

”It was very tough. Didn’t help scoring just 99. Disappointing result today, to finish off the series in that way. There was a bit of spin, and it was two paced, it was tacky as it was under covers due to the rain,” losing captain Miller reflected.

India’s PowerPlay bowling has been on the mend in 2022, and a lot of it boils down to the skill and smarts exhibited by Siraj. From the onset of 2020 to their last ODI before Siraj’s comeback, India managed only nine wickets in overs 1-10 in 18 matches, at an average of 115.77 and an economy rate of 5.78 – the worst readings for any team in that phase. They’ve averaged 21.10 since his return, and conceded 4.22 per over. His own economy of 3.64 in ODIs is the best ever among Indian pacers who have bowled a minimum of 50 overs in the first PowerPlay.

Siraj spoke about thinking on his feet and relishing responsibilty in a post-match review alongside Kuldeep. ”The County stint helped in fine-tuning my line and lengths. I am pretty satisfied with how the ball is leaving my hand. I’ve developed the confidence to pick up wickets with the new ball. It is important to be consistent, and not be lured into over experimentation. But today, as there was little swing on offer and drives were easy to execute, I thought the bouncer might be a good option. Those two wickets gave me tremendous joy as the plan worked like a charm.”