Match Analysis

Siraj gives India a new (ball) cutting edge

By being able to move it both ways, he's become a key part of the team's plans in ODI cricket

Hemant Brar
Hemant Brar
Around this time last year, India's ineffectiveness with the new ball was haunting them in ODIs. Despite having Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah in their line-up, they were by far the worst bowling side in the world in the first ten overs.
Mohammed Siraj has put his hand up to rectify that.
Throughout this series against Sri Lanka, he provided early breakthroughs. In the first ODI, he picked up two wickets with the new ball. In the second, he took one, and in the third, his four strikes played a big role in handing Sri Lanka the biggest defeat in ODI cricket.
In all, he bagged nine wickets - the most in the series - at an economy of 4.05. These are excellent numbers but more heartening to see was the way he operated.
Into his sixth year in international cricket, Siraj seems to be much more aware of his strengths and limitations. He had started as a natural inswing bowler. The next obvious step was to develop an outswinger. During one of the IPL seasons, he even picked Dale Steyn's brain and finally got his outswing going. But somewhere along the way, he ended up losing his inswinger, and once again, turned into a one-dimensional bowler.
Siraj knew he needed both deliveries in his armoury to succeed at the highest level. That led him to experiment with the wobble seam, which is now his main wicket-taking delivery. With the new ball, he initially looks for the swing. But as soon as the ball stops swinging, he goes straight to the wobble-seam variation. He would tilt the seam towards a right-hand batter's fine leg and hit the deck hard while attacking the stumps.
"The biggest advantage with the wobble seam is neither me nor the batter can guess how much the ball will nip back," Siraj said after the third ODI. "Sometimes it will come back in appreciably; at others, it will go straight."
Both cases were on display against Sri Lanka. In the second ODI, with the new ball not swinging, Avishka Fernando looked to drive Siraj through the line. But the wobble-seam delivery jagged back in to take the inside edge and clattered into the stumps.
On Sunday, his wobble-seam ball to Kusal Mendis held its line. The batter ended up playing inside the line and edged it to the wicketkeeper.
There has been a change in the mindset too. Earlier, Siraj was more concerned about the results. Now he is focused on executing his skills as well as he can.
"Even if I don't get wickets now but bowl the right line and length, I am satisfied," he said.
"During this series, my plan was to swing the new ball and pick up early wickets. It didn't matter if I got hit for two-three fours, because if I can pick up a couple of wickets, it will push the opposition on the back foot."
In the third ODI, he bowled seven overs on the trot with the new ball, picking up 4 for 20 in that and reducing Sri Lanka to 48 for 6. Two more wickets fell in the next two overs, and with Ashen Bandara not available to bat after an on-field collision with Jeffrey Vandersay, Sri Lanka's No. 10 and No. 11 were in the middle.
India saw this as an opportunity for Siraj to get his maiden five-wicket haul in the format. For the last two balls of the 16th over, Shami ambled to the stumps and bowled well outside off at a reduced pace. The idea was to not go for another wicket, and allow Siraj to have a shot at his fifth.
Siraj did create a few chances in his next three overs: a couple of top edges landed safely, an inside edge fell just short of wicketkeeper KL Rahul, and Kasun Rajitha got an lbw verdict overturned on review. But the fifth wicket eluded him.
Still, he earned his best figures in the format, 4 for 32, and his captain's praise.
"He is a rare talent," Rohit Sharma said after the match. "The way he has come up in the last couple of years, the way he has gone from strength to strength, that is good for Indian cricket. We tried all sorts of things [for his five-for]; unfortunately, it didn't happen. But the four wickets he got were brilliant to watch, and the five-for will come.
"The way he is bowling at the moment, the confidence is there. You can see it in the way he is running, trying to swing the ball upfront. And you can finally see the rewards coming through. Then he has got a few tricks up his sleeve for the middle overs as well, which he is working on."
Siraj did give a glimpse of his latest trick. In his last over, he slipped in a back-of-the-hand slower ball. He does bowl an offcutter but this was something new. Something we could see a lot more of in the coming days. Something that will add yet another dimension to his bowling.

Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo