By A. Joseph Antony
Hyderabad: From tennis to white and then red-ball cricket over the past five years, he trekked, if not trotted, from tragedy to triumph in the last three months. Fate, at first unkind, was bowled over and then became magnanimous with Mohammed Siraj. From poverty to now possessing a BMW, the late bloomer from the area of First Lancer had waited in the wings enough, before making an entry into sports superstardom in spectacular fashion.
Behind the trappings of a new-found success and the spotlight not yet ready to leave him alone, the ‘find of the (latest) tour’ is a simple man, as seen through the eyes of team India fielding coach R. Sridhar.
That was until the team touched down in Melbourne. Sridhar on Siraj’s behalf sent an SOS to his friend Vijay, who’s originally from Gunfoundry, the Twin Cities’ (Hyderabad and Secunderabad) landmark famous for its cannonball factory set up by French general Michel Marie Joachim Raymond for Nizam Ali Khan in 1786. Siraj feasted on mutton curry, biriyani and other typical Hyderabad delicacies for Christmas.
On the day following, when the December 26 Boxing Day Test opened, Siraj combined with fellow debutant Shubman Gill to claim the prized scalp of Marnus Labuschagne, Australia’s top scorer of the first innings. Not much later he trapped Cameron Green LBW, the towering West Australian incidentally the home side’s top scorer in its second essay.
“See sir, didn’t I tell you,” Siraj joked with Sridhar, as if to suggest the Hyderabadi fare from the day before had fuelled his day one two-wicket bag on his first foray into the game’s longest format.
After good performances on India A tours, Siraj would call up Team India bowling coach Bharat Arun and Sridhar to ask, “Kab bulaare mere ko,” which translates to “When are you calling me” (implying a call-up to the nation’s top team).
Good vibes with the affable Sridhar was understandable, both hailing from the Twin Cities, the BCCI even tweeting a video of their banter in unadulterated Hyderabadi lingo. His equation with Arun went back to Siraj’s early days in first class competition when the latter was Hyderabad’s Ranji Trophy bowling coach before bigger assignments beckoned Bharat.
At other times, he’d call to ask, “Topi kab dila re mere ko,” (when are you getting me the cap), referring to the India cap. In time, Team India’s support staff duo would doff their hats in admiration to the high velocity pacer who turned belittling blows of personal tragedy and racial abuse to sterling displays in the white hot crucible of competition.
Donning the nation’s colours was a truly emotional experience for Siraj. That video went viral, tears streaming down his face, in joy or was it grief? His father Mohammed Ghouse, who had shielded him from scolding at home and funded Siraj’s cricket ambitions from his meagre earnings, wasn’t around in the world to witness his son’s career take off and soar swiftly and high.
Sridhar is all praise for Siraj when it comes to the craft of fielding. “He’s very quick on his feet for a fast bowler with a throw to die for and is adamant about improving his batting,” added the former Hyderabad slow left-arm spinner and ringside viewer to all the drama that unfolded in the recent past.
Against the backdrop of the team’s conquest of cricket’s toughest frontier in Australia, Hyderabad’s latest cricket icon has only been moving forward, felt former Indian cricketer Noel David. Siraj and David, a double centurion in Hyderabad’s record total of 944 for six declared, have much in common.
Both are self-made, from very humble beginnings, with little or no coaching, climbing the ladder to the stars. “I hope he doesn’t lose his way like I did,” adds David by way of caution
“Siraj has the ability to hit the deck quickly. His success with the India A tours against the big guns such as Australia, South Africa and New Zealand was enough indication of his pace bowling prowess. Interestingly his career ran parallel to Navdeep Saini but we had a hunch Siraj would do better overseas,” recalled former Chairman of Selectors, M.S.K. Prasad.
“Siraj would have suffered heartache at not being included for the second test against the West Indies at his hometown of Hyderabad in October 2018. “But then, India’s pace battery was at its peak,” Prasad recalled of the game where another player Umesh Yadav was adjudged man of the match. “Siraj is not just a fun loving guy but a great team man too,” added the former Indian wicket-keeper.
“Siraj always proved himself when he got the opportunities,” observed R.A. Swaroop. As a Hyderabad selector, Swaroop had watched his ascent from two-day local league matches to the zonals, earmarked for three-day players. Not only did the speedster wade through the competition, he was fast-tracked from the under 23 to the Ranji squad.
“Siraj needed no pep talks or motivation, for he was charged up always. His rise from the lowest to the highest levels, which otherwise would have taken several years, is testimony to his passion to perform. By becoming a frontline bowler, he has proved he’s focused, accurate and most importantly has a natural ability to get wickets when it matters,” said the former Hyderabad and Baroda top-order batsman.
“The fire in Siraj’s belly is unmistakable,” noted Prasan Kumar. “He has all the qualities of a good fast bowler. Some fine-tuning of his skills can work wonders,” Andhra’s former wicket-keeper opined.
Like the house he was born in was built on rock, Siraj has his feet firmly planted in Indian sport’s elite, his staying power akin to that of a long-distance thoroughbred racehorse.
A. Joseph Antony is a senior sports journalist based in Hyderabad with over two decades of experience.