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'Every wicket I was taking I was dedicating it to dad' - The story of Mohammed Siraj's homecoming

He is still "speechless", unable to believe what he and his team-mates have accomplished in Australia

Nagraj Gollapudi
Shabana Begum could not stop crying as her second son returned home after nearly six months overseas. Not too long before, the son had laid flowers on the grave of his dad, who had passed away on November 20 last year while he was on duty in Australia.
The first few hours of Mohammed Siraj's homecoming on Thursday were poignant: full of emotions, a deep sense of loss, a sense of happiness, a sense of peace, of being in the embrace of your loved ones after months of living in lockdown on one the most arduous tours in cricket.
Immediately upon landing in Hyderabad at 9 am from a triumphant Australia tour, where he made his Test debut and ended as India's highest wicket-taker, Siraj went to the graveyard in Khairatabad to pay respect to his late father Mohammed Ghouse, a former auto rickshaw driver, who passed away at the young age of 53 due to lung ailment.
According to Mohammed Shafi, Siraj's childhood friend and his first captain in gully cricket at First Lancer Cricket Club, he threw up as he spent some quiet moments at his dad's grave. It was around 11 in the morning when Siraj reached his home. "As soon as I reached home mom started crying, but I remained strong and kept her positive," Siraj would tell the Hyderabad media later in the afternoon.
Shafi illustrates the emotions vividly. "His mummy had not seen Siraj for six months, so she started crying. Siraj told his mummy: 'main nahi ro rahan hoon, aap kyon ro rahe ho (I'm not crying so why are you crying)?' So she calmed down. He gave her the himmat (strength).
"Mai Hyderabadi khana breakfast mein (I want to have Hyderabadi breakfast)," Shafi recounts Siraj asking his mom. Begum served him "nihari and paaya", a traditional Mughlai delicacy of meat-based stews.
Siraj could barely put his feet up to relax thereafter as he patiently responded to multiple back-to-back media requests over the phone. By afternoon Shafi along with Siraj's family erected a makeshift tent outside the house in Tolichowki, a densely populated suburb in western part of Hyderabad, for the local media.
The first question at the media conference to Siraj concerned the demise of his dad. Siraj had travelled to the UAE last August to play the IPL for the Royal Challengers Bangalore. From there the Indian squads moved to Australia. Confronted with a difficult question of whether to return to India and risk quarantine, Siraj opted to stay back, after discussing the issue with his family and the Indian team management.
"Firstly, it was very difficult for me about dad passing away," Siraj said. "Mentally I was depressed. When I spoke with my family (in November) they also said that fulfil the dream of dad. And I have returned having fulfilled that dream."
Siraj had a lump in his throat talking about visiting the grave. "It was very emotional considering I was not even there at the time of his death."
Ghouse would no doubt have been a proud father, had he been alive to see his son make his Test debut at the historic MCG on Boxing Day. Siraj got the opportunity only because Mohammed Shami had broken his elbow in the defeat in the first Test. Having proved his red-ball skills during his stints with India A over the past few years, the team management was confident Siraj was ready for Test cricket. India drew level in the series with a memorable win in Melbourne, courtesy the century from their captain Ajinkya Rahane, but Siraj, too, played a big hand with five-wicket match haul.
In Sydney, Siraj had to steel himself from crowd abuse on more than one day as India fought hard to deny Australia the series lead. Siraj did not lose his head. He showed courage. That forced Australian heads to bow in shame. Opposition players like Nathan Lyon acknowledged that Siraj had set an example in reporting racist abuse. "The abuse from some in the Australian crowd made me mentally strong," Siraj said. "The fact that I did not allow that abuse to have an effect on my game was important."
By the start of the final Test at the Gabba, Siraj had inadvertently become the leader of a bowling attack comprising mainly debutants: Shardul Thakur, T Natarajan and Washington Sundar. "Everyone trusted me. They were telling me I was bowling well and I was the leading bowler. There was pressure. It was challenging to perform with such a responsibility, but I enjoyed taking it up. I focused on building pressure on the batsman and hit the same area on the pitch. I had to ensure I did not try too hard so that would help both the team and me."
One big-pressure moment for Siraj came on the fourth afternoon when he missed a high catch in the deep off Steven Smith. Australia's best batsman was on 42 and the lead at that point was 202. Soon after, Siraj also failed to latch on to a return catch from Cameron Green as Australia were eyeing a big total.
Once again Siraj did not lose his head. He surprised Smith with lifter that hit the bat handle and flew straight into the safe hands of Rahane at gully. "Smith's wicket was crucial. It was helpful for the team and it reduced the pressure on me."
Siraj had already surprised Marnus Labuschagne with an equally sharp rising delivery earlier in the day in an over where he also forced a nick off Mathew Wade. "My favorite wicket is Marnus Labuschagne because it was important for us to get a wicket at that point in the match. And for me to get two wickets in the same over was important."
He might be only three-Tests old, but Siraj's fairy tale story of being fast-tracked from gully cricket to domestic cricket to India A to international cricket is a new chapter in the crucible of Indian cricket. He is now seen as an example of how heroes can emerge from unthinkable corners.
Siraj's advice to youngsters is simple. "In life if you have to achieve something do it from your heart. Bas junoon rehana chahiye kuch bhi karna chahiye toh (You just need the obsession to achieve anything). In success you need the junoon and hardwork. Hardwork kabhi bhi khali nahin jaata (Hardwork never goes in vain)."
Before heading to the IPL Siraj had prepared himself bowling at a single wicket. In the UAE South African bowling legend Dale Steyn, Siraj's team-mate at the Royal Challengers, shared some tricks to get command over the outswing which the young quick utilised well on the Australian tour. Siraj now intends to continue to improve during the home series against England,
"Yes, I had a good tour," he said, "But I should continue to perform going forward. I should ensure that I do not get carried away by this performance. It sets my future, but I don't want to get relaxed."
Siraj finished the Gabba Test with his maiden five-for. He finished as India's best bowler (13 wickets) on the Australian Test tour despite playing only three Tests. To make one's debut in Australia, to win a series there and to emerge as the team's best bowler is what emerging fast men dream about. Siraj ended up living up that dream. He is still "speechless", unable to believe what he and his team-mates had accomplished. "I always think: did this really happen? It is like a dream."
After every wicket he took, Siraj would look skywards, searching for someone very special. "Every wicket I was taking I was dedicating it to dad," he said.
Ghouse, who Siraj dearly wants to talk to is not there anymore. "Each time I perform I miss him. There are so many times I think of calling him, but then realise he is no more there. I miss him very much. Bas unko Allah Tallah jannat nasib farmaye (May he rest in peace in heaven)."

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo