Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Mohammed Siraj is a hard bowler to figure out.
Go through his numbers and you'll see a guy who leaks runs. He's played six seasons of the IPL, and in three of them, he's gone for at least nine an over.
Check out some of his wickets though, and you'll see a guy who keeps doing the one thing batters around the world absolutely hate. He surprises them.
In 2021, he Test-cricketed Steven Smith in a T20 match. Squared him up. Got the edge. Waved him bye-bye. In 2018, bowling in the death to Andre Russell, perhaps the most fearsome power hitter of the modern era, he bounced him out. Too quick. Too good. Birthday boy gone for a golden duck. In 2020, he became the first bowler to bowl two maidens in an IPL game. Two weeks later, he recreated Dale Steyn vs Brad Haddin with a ball that Prithvi Shaw thought he had covered only for his off stump to scream at him otherwise.
Labels are a big thing in sport. And the one that seems to fit Siraj is the guy in that meme that goes noooo, I don't want that. I want whatever's weirder than that.
Seriously, there was a game last year, against Rajasthan Royals, where Siraj's figures read 4-0-27-3. He bowled 16 dot balls in that spell. On a pitch where Royal Challengers Bangalore did not lose a single wicket while chasing down 178.
He did, however, concede four fours and a six. That's 22 out of 27 runs in boundaries. A bowler capable of making the opposition look completely unprepared for him has no business looking so deliciously hittable.
On Tuesday, against New Zealand, Siraj produced a wicket with the second ball he bowled. Then another with his 17th. A couple more with his 19th and 23rd. And a pattern began to emerge.
A lot of Siraj's success comes from hitting the deck hard. (He's got other tricks, but let's focus on this for now.) In India, where there's not always a lot of sideways movement, it means you're setting the batter up to get under the ball and hit you over the top. That's why even though he gets all these cool wickets, he still keeps going for runs.
Out here in Napier, on a pitch that was juiced up by a fair bit of rain, every time Siraj banged the ball in, it did unexpected things. Mark Chapman was looking to launch him over the short square boundary on the leg side, but instead the ball seamed away and took the leading edge.
Siraj understood that he'd been given conditions that were right up his alley. He even said so in the interview between innings. All he wanted to do was bowl hard lengths, because that was what the batters were struggling to deal with. It's probably the reason why he was so successful in Australia a couple of years ago. He was on his first tour of the country. A horde of his team-mates were out injured. And he emerged as their highest wicket-taker in a famous series win.
Remember his five-for at the Gabba? He took out players who are bred on pace and bounce with pace and bounce. Smith practically recoiled from the ball that he ended up fending to gully. There's the other thing about Siraj. He seems to lose very little pace after the ball bounces. Again, that in India means you come on to the bat nicely. In other places, Napier for example, you become the last thing a batter sees before he ends up in the pavilion.
Glenn Phillips had hit three sixes and two fours off the last 13 balls. He'd also brought up his third fifty-plus score in six innings. In short, he was in the zone. About three seconds later, he was kicked clean out of it.
He took strike in the 16th over expecting a full delivery, because at McLean Park, which has 60m boundaries square of the wicket, that's the least damaging length to bowl. Phillips was actually preparing to make light of that, his front-foot trigger movement taking him across off stump and rendering him in the perfect stance to sweep/scoop/slog everything to that short side of the ground.
Siraj didn't give him the fuller length. He went bouncer. And he could go that way because he's quick. Not in the traditional 150kph way. But more in the Andrew Flintoff heavy ball kind of way. Phillips was very, very late on the hook and, as a result, none of his power went into the shot. Bhuvneshwar Kumar barely got to the ball running in from long leg.
That wicket triggered New Zealand's collapse. At one point, they lost six in the space of 12 balls for three runs, 130 for 2 became 160 all out.
Siraj made that happen. He just makes things happen.