To take your place in a pace attack that includes Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami demands excellence. To be in the playing XI at the cost of one of the senior pros is proof that you aren’t just hype but have plenty of substance too. And when only two of the three are selected to maintain the balance of the overall team combination, to get the nod shows that you are a special talent too.
Mohammed Siraj can sometimes leak runs or be inconsistent but when he gets it right, it’s quite the sight. He has attained the position with sheer quality of his performances. When Bumrah was sidelined due to injury, Siraj shouldered the responsibility admirably while proving his white ball credentials for most of the year. Coming into the World Cup, he had 30 wickets in 13 ODIs – his tally has now swelled to 39 wickets in 21 ODIs this year.
In 2022, when Bumrah was available for only five games and Shami played three, Siraj carried the attack in ODIs with 24 wickets in 15 games. That’s why when it was time for World Cup, the India captain and coach had no hesitation in picking him ahead of Shami.
The competition for places in the pace attack is intense though. Bumrah is the undisputed leader of the pack while Siraj and Shami vie for the second seamer’s role when the other two spots go to the pace bowling all-rounders as the team searches for batting depth.
After Shami got a break following the injury to Hardik Pandya, the equation has changed. Coming into Thursday’s game against Sri Lanka at the Wankhede, the Bengal pacer had made himself virtually undroppable with back-to-back virtuoso performances – 5/54 versus New Zealand and 4/22 versus England.
Siraj’s form, to be fair, had tapered a bit in these two games but Shami stepped in and kept the intensity going. The manner in which they complement each other makes this pace attack such a lethal unit – there’s always someone to share the load; someone to take the pressure off.
Shami’s performance also acted as an inspiration for the junior member of the tribe and Siraj was a charged-up bowler in Thursday’s game against Sri Lanka. In the first seven balls he bowled he knocked the stuffing out of the Sri Lankan batting.
“Taking wickets is important and there is no doubt about that. But my rhythm was not consistent for the last 2-3 matches, sometimes I was in rhythm and sometimes I was not. I am not judging myself with (the number of) wickets (taken). The fact that I was able to land the ball consistently (in good areas) and the swing which I got, that you saw, I am very happy about it and I want to carry this momentum forward…” said Siraj after helping dismiss the Lankans for just 55 runs.
At this point, the Lankan batters might as well be having nightmares of Siraj. It was the second time he had destroyed their top-order. Earlier in the Asia Cup final at Colombo, in September, he was even more brutal, taking a six-wicket haul to bowl them out for 50.
Shami came in as first change, and delivered another vintage performance – picking five wickets for 18 runs. Bumrah had set the tone with a wicket off the first ball and a pressure-building five-over burst for just eight runs. It was a perfect example of how bowlers hunt in a pack.
“As you can see our fast-bowling unit is very good, if I am not getting wickets, Shami bhai is stepping in and taking them or Jassi bhai (Bumrah) is. It is going very well (at the moment) for us fast bowlers, we speak about what better line and length to bowl on at a wicket,” said Siraj.
He added: “We are passing on these messages to each other which is very important. For fast bowlers, it is very important to bowl in a consistent area. In the 50-overs format, when you take a wicket or two in the powerplay, the opposition team gets pushed onto the back foot. It is very important to take wickets early and that is happening, so we want to continue with this momentum.”
The beauty of this attack can be seen in the manner in which they complement each other. All three are attacking the stumps. The pressure is built by Bumrah. He has both reputation and form. Bowling at his best, he is moving the ball at pace and the opposition looks to play him out.
Siraj is aiming to bowl a fuller length. It makes him dangerous because he is generating movement while attacking the stumps. The challenge is when the ball isn’t swinging, the batters are able to play their drives and he can leak runs. But, if there’s help in the pitch, as there was at the Wankhede, the fuller length makes him unplayable.
With Shami at first change, there’s no respite for the batters. In superb rhythm, he is putting on an exhibition of swing and seam bowling. The key has been his accuracy and control, delivering the ball while looking to attack the stumps or the batter’s edge. The numbers tell their own tale – Shami is now also the leading wicket-taker for India in World Cups, going past Zaheer Khan and Javagal Srinath’s tally of 44 each. It took Zaheer 23 matches and Srinath 34. Shami has broken their record in just 14 games.
The bowling plan is put into place by Bumrah. He is a good reader of the pitch and shares his inputs with the unit. “When Jassi bhai bowls, he gets an idea about what line and length is better on a wicket. He relays the same message to us and I also speak with KL (Rahul) bhai because from his position, he can see how much the ball is swinging or how much movement is off the seam,” said Siraj. In helpful conditions (as we saw on Thursday), Sirj goes all out; otherwise, he changes plans.
“I get alerted by these messages; say the ball is not swinging, but I still try to find some swing but if there is nothing, then I switch to trying to hit the seam. It is very good for us as fast bowlers to get such messages and also for the team,” the Hyderabad pacer said.
With such a display of combined excellence being put on match after match, the challenge for the team management is to decide on their combination once Pandya is fit to play. The way the bowling attack is scything through oppositions, they are saving 30-40 runs for the team and also giving them a buffer in case they have a poor batting day as they did against England. Honestly, in this kind of form, it will be difficult to tinker with the bowling combination.