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Match Analysis

Smooth and skilful Siraj emerges as India's new-ball trump card

His control and rhythm has been instrumental in India turning around a dismal record in the first powerplay

Mohammed Siraj sent back Janneman Malan and Reeza Hendricks with the short ball in the deciding ODI  •  Gallo Images/Getty Images

Mohammed Siraj sent back Janneman Malan and Reeza Hendricks with the short ball in the deciding ODI  •  Gallo Images/Getty Images

There's usually an unwritten rhythm to the international white-ball calendar; there are ODI years and T20I years, with teams prioritising one format or the other depending on which global event is around the corner.
In the time of Covid-19, though, ODIs have come to occupy a strange and seemingly neglected space. A T20 World Cup was scheduled for 2020 and postponed to 2021. There's another T20 World Cup starting later this month. There could have been an ODI Champions Trophy in the mix, but it was scrapped, so the ODI became the format where you played your second-stringers most often.
It was at such a time, this February, that Mohammed Siraj came back into the ODI side for a home series against West Indies. He'd played just the one ODI before that, back in January 2019.
In his comeback game, in Ahmedabad, Siraj took the new ball and began with a maiden. In his second over, he conceded back-to-back fours to Shai Hope, full outswingers dispatched with fluent drives through the off side. Then, Siraj bowled his wobble-seam ball, looking just as driveable as the previous two balls but nipping back in off the deck, and Hope, taking the bait, inside-edged it onto his stumps.
From that point, Siraj has given India regular breakthroughs in the first powerplay of ODIs. On Tuesday, he added two more, both with short balls, both times using the two-paced nature of the Feroz Shah Kotla pitch to his advantage.
Batters probably find Siraj's short ball a little tricky to pick anyway, given his beyond-the-perpendicular release, and the way he hurries through the crease. You expect the ball to skid quickly onto the bat; when it instead stops on you, as it did when Reeza Hendricks shaped for a pull, you're halfway through the shot before you realise what's happening.
The wicket of Hendricks was Siraj's 12th in the first 10 overs this year, the most of any bowler from a Full-Member team. Siraj averages 15.66 in the first powerplay this year, and he has an economy rate of just 3.54.
These are superb numbers, and especially encouraging for the team management because they've come at a time when India were suffering from a bit of a new-ball problem.
And that's an understatement. From the start of 2020 to their last ODI before Siraj's comeback, India played 18 matches, in which their bowlers took just nine first-powerplay wickets, at an average of 115.77. They were comfortably the worst team in the world in that phase, well ahead of Zimbabwe who averaged 63.45. India's economy rate of 5.78 in this phase was the worst of any team too, with Pakistan in second place at 5.34.
The lack of new-ball wickets was a major factor behind India's 7-11 win-loss record in this period. Opposition top orders made merry - there were seven century stands for the first wicket alone.
India bowled to some of the world's best batting teams in this period, but they were also using their first-choice fast bowlers most of the time. Jasprit Bumrah bowled in the first 10 overs in 12 innings, and took just one wicket at an average of 213.00, while Bhuvneshwar Kumar averaged 64.50 across seven innings. While these two kept the runs down, managing economy rates of below five an over, Mohammed Shami averaged 75.50 and went at 6.29. The other India fast bowler to bowl at least 100 balls in this phase in this period, Navdeep Saini, went wicketless while going at 6.47.
It's possible, of course, that Siraj may have played those games and done just as poorly. His outstanding recent form with the new ball has coincided with an overall improvement in India's record; they've averaged 21.10 in the first powerplay since Siraj's comeback, and conceded 4.22 per over, indicating that they've often bowled in conditions with a little more help and/or to weaker top orders.
But no matter what circumstances they came in, Siraj's contribution to India's improved new-ball record cannot be underestimated: since his comeback, he's bowled 318 balls in the first 10 overs, over three times as many as the 102 delivered by Prasidh Krishna, who has taken on the next-biggest workload.
As he's shown through all three matches of this ODI series against South Africa, Siraj has all the skills you need with the new white ball. He swings the ball away from the right-hander, and snakes his wobble-seam ball back into them. His default line and length ensure a tight grouping of balls close to the top of off stump. He has a sharp bouncer.
There were glimpses of skills for other phases too. In the second ODI, he bowled unchanged from the 44th over to the 50th, and conceded just 14 runs and four overthrows (which counted as byes and didn't go into his figures) in four overs of unhittable slower cutters. Ball after ball, he hit that annoying length that was too short to drive and not short enough to pull, and used all the purchase on a dry Ranchi pitch to suffocate South Africa's batters. The conditions were unusual - so dry and abrasive that the ball took on the greenish-brown colour that evoked the end overs of ODIs in the era when they only used one ball per innings - but he showed the control needed to make complete use of them.
That's been a feature of a lot of his recent performances too. In the third T20I in Indore, for instance, he bowled a 17th over full of inch-perfect yorkers, and gave away just eight runs - a small, memorable stretch of ball holding its own against bat in a match that was entirely about bat dominating ball.
Siraj's outstanding recent form with the new ball has coincided with an overall improvement in India's record; they've averaged 21.10 in the first powerplay since his comeback
The control Siraj showed in that over, and the control of length he showed right through the ODI series, indicated the kind of rhythm he's in. This has been evident just from watching him run up and zip through the crease. Everything's just looked smooth and in sync.
There's even a chance that this rhythm might tempt India to name Siraj as their replacement for Bumrah in their T20 World Cup squad. Thanks to a bout of Covid-19, it's as yet unclear whether Shami - who seems to be their preferred option - will be at full fitness by the time the tournament begins. Deepak Chahar, the other fast bowler in the original list of reserves, is injured.
Siraj was probably nowhere near India's plans when they began planning for the World Cup. He's only played two T20Is this year; Avesh Khan, in comparison, has played 15, and you could argue that Siraj was lucky to not get the time and space to have his weaknesses thoroughly tested.
ODIs, moreover, are an entirely different beast to T20Is, with entirely different demands. Even if some strengths are transferable, Siraj's biggest one - new-ball bowling - isn't the gap India are looking to plug in Bumrah's absence.
But Siraj is quick, slippery and skilful, and he appears to be in peak rhythm. Sometimes, those reasons are compelling enough.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo