Disciplined Mohammed Siraj providing depth, intensity to India's pace pack
His ability to pin down any specialist batter for long periods could well make the difference in this series
The game feels different watching from the outside. Several recently retired players walk out of teams and into the commentary box to start wondering why captains stop trying to get an established batter out when in company of a tailender. It is as though they never were parts of teams that did the same when cheap runs were on the line. When there is skin in the game, hardly any captain risks those chancy 20-30 runs these days even if it means the established batter keeps taking singles on the fifth or sixth ball to manipulate the strike for a while.
In England's first innings at Lord's, though, something interesting happened. England were eight down, Root was batting on 160, the ball was around 40 overs old, and he wanted to shield Mark Wood and James Anderson. This was an extremely delicate juncture for India in the Test. It was towards the end of a long day, the best batting day of the series. England were around India's score. Root is an adept limited-overs batter too. His successful manipulation of strike could possibly bat India out of the Test.
For three straight Mohammed Siraj overs, Root was pinned to one end. One boundary, no single, no bouncer, no yorker. Siraj managed to shackle Root with just line and length. The line and length was just so good it presented undue risk if Root wanted to manipulate strike. The bowler at the other end kept getting a clear shot at the tailenders. Mark Wood was run out, and Jasprit Bumrah got a full over at Anderson.
It takes either a treacherous pitch, which this wasn't, or special skills and control with the ball to pin down any specialist batter for this long in such a match situation. Root didn't even get a shot at a boundary with the field up for the single apart from the one that he managed to hit.
This was a seven-over spell of high intensity from Siraj. He has had higher high points in his short career - the two-in-two earlier and later in the match, for example - but this was a feat of endurance and maturity that sets fast bowlers apart in an era tailormade for them. This is the intensity that England didn't have when they had the chance to run through the Indian lower order on the fifth morning.
Part of it comes from the superior depth in India's attack, but part of it is credit to the bowler himself. Siraj managed to keep bowling his nipbackers that ended up in front of off. They weren't full enough to drive. They weren't short enough to pull or punch. Just the perfect line and length. This is what Test bowling is mostly about: deny risk-free runs for long durations and let your skills with the ball do the rest.
The rest, it would appear, comes easy to Siraj. His first wicket - Marnus Labuschagne caught at leg gully - might have been part of a larger team plan, but the second was a delightful set-up. He bowled an over full of away-going deliveries to Cameron Green and Tim Paine followed by three more away swingers to Green before trapping him lbw with the sharp incoming delivery. That is something he did with Root in India too.
With Jos Buttler at Lord's, Siraj did the reverse. He bowled a spell full of incoming deliveries to right-hand batters and outgoing ones to left-hand ones before coming back for a fresh spell and bowling the one that went way. Buttler had been in, he had been leaving balls well, but such was the fear of the nipbacker that he let his hands play at this one outside off.
That nipbacker is way more dangerous for left-hand batters, which is why Siraj is averaging just 16.7 against them. It is early days yet as he has taken just 10 left-hand batters out, but the dangerous angle he creates from them has been spoken about even before he debuted. It is the blind spot that around middle and leg that he keeps hitting again and again. Any straighter and you get picked off on the leg side, any wider and you get left alone. Siraj bowls that perfect channel where left-hand batters have to keep playing at him as Moeen Ali discovered in that over-and-a-half of torture before finally nicking off without doing much wrong.
"Siraj managed to keep bowling his nipbackers that ended up in front of off. They weren't full enough to drive. They weren't short enough to pull or punch. Just the perfect line and length."
Siraj is no Bumrah, but still the movement he gets is not classic. It doesn't come from a classic swing-bowling action. It's all angles and quick arm speed. He bowls a scrambled seam. So it is not easy to line up the movement because it is late and unpredictable. He is beginning to play around with an offcutter, too.
Of course Siraj gets to feed off the pressure created by a world-class unit, a luxury many Indian fast bowlers before him didn't have, but he does his share of the heavy lifting. Since he debuted, he has bowled more overs, taken more wickets at better average with the ball aged 30 to 80 overs than any India fast bowler. Only Hasan Ali has taken more "old-ball" wickets than him during this period.
The big difference between the India that toured England in 2018 and now is that Siraj is the fourth quick in a fully fit squad. He adds the depth to India's bowling resources to an extent that the team management feels compelled to give up some batting depth and leave out an all-time great in R Ashwin.
Sometimes you do wonder which are the "haters" that Siraj is shushing because all you see around is love for him. From Bharat Arun at Hyderabad to Paras Mhambrey at India A to Arun and Virat Kohli at international level, his bowling coaches and captains have backed him and not without reason.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo