Mohammed Siraj silences the critics and trolls

India’s feisty pace bowler has made rapid progress since starting to make his mark in 2016, but it’s been a hard journey and he is still learning to let his performance on the pitch speak for itself.

“India have certainly found a superstar in Mohammed Siraj,” English cricket commentator Ian Ward remarked soon after the pacer took the wicket of James Anderson to lead India to a historic win against England at Lord’s on 15 August. Siraj ran off with one of the stumps after this wicket and didn’t stop for a while. His eyes looked fierce as he jumped several times before his teammates joined him to celebrate the victory. 

This was his fourth wicket in the second innings and eighth overall, the most by any bowler in the match. He had celebrated all the others in his distinctive manner of putting a finger to his lips, which he explained thus in a press conference after the third day’s play: “This … is for the haters because they used to say a lot of things about me, like he cannot do this and cannot do that. So, I will only let my ball do the talking and hence this is my new style of celebration.” 

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Siraj, 27, was born to a lower-middle-class family in the southern Indian state of Hyderabad. They lived in a rented house and his father, Mohammed Ghaus, drove an autorickshaw to support his family. Like any other Indian child, Siraj started his cricket journey by playing on the streets with tennis balls. He often bunked school to play cricket, even though his mother, Shabana Begum, was quite strict and wanted him to concentrate on his studies. 

He initially started as a batsman before opting for fast bowling, for which he had the necessary aggression and pace. He did not have a coach or anyone at home to guide him, but his fiery bowling spells would often surprise the spectators. 

Siraj also had no idea of playing cricket with a leather ball until he was 21. Thanks to a friend who insisted he give it a try, he then started playing at club level. He thought of playing professional cricket one day, but knowing his family’s financial status, he scarcely dreamt of making it big.  

Rising through the ranks

To his surprise, Siraj found a place in Hyderabad’s U-23 cricket team not long after starting to take the sport seriously. His impressive outings with the ball influenced selectors to try him at senior level. He made his first-class debut in late 2015 by playing for Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy, a premier domestic tournament, but got only one match that year. 

Having learnt more about the game, Siraj worked much harder the next year. He finished with 41 wickets in nine matches in the 2016-2017 Ranji Trophy, announcing his arrival at the top level. The first thing he wanted to do after this successful stint was to convince his father to stop being a driver. 

“My father has been driving his autorickshaw for the last 30 years. I urged him to stop, but he did not pay heed to my request. I’m confident of convincing him now. He needs a good rest,” Siraj said at the time. 

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A month later, his ability of clocking over 140km/h was probably the reason for him earning a contract in the Indian Premier League (IPL), where he was bought for $355 000 (about R5 million) by Sunrisers Hyderabad. 

His immediate goal after this contract was to give his family a good home. “I want to buy a house for them now in a good locality,” Siraj said in February 2017. 

Months later, he was included in the India Twenty20 international team, making his debut on 4 November 2017 against New Zealand. It had been a swift turnaround for him. A few years before, he had no idea of professional cricket and now he was playing for the national team. 

Reality bites

The real challenge for Siraj now was to prove himself on the stage where it matters the most. He quickly learnt how tough it can get out there. In his debut, he leaked 53 runs in four overs. Later, he played two more T20 internationals and was very expensive, giving away more than 11 runs per over in the three matches. 

In the IPL he also leaked too many runs in most of the games, which invited a lot of criticism. People started trolling him and made memes about his performances. After seeing sudden success, Siraj was reeling under a lot of pressure. The sparkle seemed to be fading.

But Siraj wasn’t going to give up easily. He worked on his weaknesses and came back strongly on the domestic circuit. In the IPL 2020, Siraj delivered some top performances in the tournament. Having faced a lot of heat, he decided to send a message to the trolls.

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“People have a habit of judging others. They don’t see what the person is doing and how they have struggled to reach where they have [got]. We didn’t get it easy, right? Coming here and playing the IPL [isn’t a] gift. The person who’s come here after struggling, he’s given a platform. There’s a lot of pressure, man,” he said in a video message. 

“Everyone gets hit – it’s T20 cricket. Everyone gets hit. Some days are good for people, others are bad. It doesn’t mean [you say] he’s a bad bowler, do this to him, do that. This is a really wrong [mindset] we have.”

Siraj’s success in domestic cricket and a good IPL season meant he got his maiden call-up to India’s Test squad touring Australia for a four-match series from November 2020 to January 2021. 

Tragedy strikes

Just over a week after landing in Australia, Siraj heard devastating news: his father had died from a lung ailment at the age of 53. To his dismay, Siraj couldn’t attend the last rites owing to Covid-19 quarantine restrictions. Although he was later given the option of flying home to join his grieving family, the pacer decided to stay for “national duty”. 

“My dad’s wish was always this: Mera beta, desh ka naam roshan karna (My son, make the country proud). And I will do that for sure,” Siraj said after his father’s death. “It was his dream to see me play for the country and I am glad that … I could realise that and bring joy for him.”

Two months later, Siraj was ready to make his Test debut in Sydney. When both teams stood for their respective national anthems ahead of the match, Siraj was the centre of attention. He was seen rubbing his eyes on camera, making it an emotional moment for many. He later revealed that he was thinking of how proud his father would have been seeing him playing Test cricket for India. 

During the match, Siraj complained of racial abuse from the crowd, forcing umpires to take action and stopping play for almost 10 minutes. A large group of spectators was later ejected from the stadium. 

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While Siraj’s career is just nine Tests old, many former cricketers and experts believe he could go on to become one of India’s best. This is not only owing to his abilities with the ball, but also because of his attitude towards life. He doesn’t settle for less. 

“Met him [Siraj] for the first time at former Hyderabad great Abdul Azeem’s residence,” tweeted VVS Laxman, a former Indian batting great, after the Lord’s Test. “And I feel so proud to see the rapid progress Siraj has already made in international cricket. His life is another testament of what one can achieve through hard work & willpower. More power to you, young man.”

Sachin Tendulkar, the legendary Indian cricketer, said: “Siraj is a quick learner and adapts well to situations. Fast bowlers have a period where they develop very quickly. You look at them and you know they are a different bowler now.”

Siraj wrote on his Instagram account after the match-winning performance against England: “Magic is believing in yourself. If you can make that happen, you can make anything happen.” 

After the heroics at Lord’s, Mohammed Siraj continued to be a part of the Indian team for the next two Tests. He finished what turned out to be a four-Test series with 14 wickets, playing a valuable role in handing his team a 2-1 lead before the final Test got cancelled because of Covid cases in the Indian camp.

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