An hour before the start of play on Day 1, at least before journalists started second-guessing India’s playing XI, it seemed inevitable that Umesh Yadav would start. He’d been integrated into the squad last week and, after Bumrah’s departure, was naturally expected to take his ‘rightful’ place.
Umesh himself had every reason to think he would start, too. Prior to today, he’d averaged 13.86 in his last 7 Tests at home and had genuinely outbowled all of his compatriots, including both Ishant and Shami, in the said time frame. By the end of the 2019 home season, he’d established himself as the most lethal and effective seamer in Indian conditions - ever. We’d even written prior to the series as to how Bumrah had the responsibility of carrying Umesh’s legacy over. So a Bumrah-Umesh swap, heading into the final Test of the series, seemed just about right.
Except the Indian management begged to differ. With the World Test Championship on the line, they lay their faith in Mohammad Siraj, who, prior to today, had only bowled 8 overs in Indian conditions in his entire Test career. To say that the decision was received with mixed emotions by the public would be harsh, but the underlying view was that Umesh was rather unlucky to miss out.
By the 13th over of the day, though, not a single soul was talking about Umesh’s fortunes. For, by then, despite him having bowled all of 4 overs, Mohammed Siraj had already left those who’d tuned in to the game mesmerized. By the 4th over of his spell, he was bowling as well as he ever had in his Test career, by the 4th over of his spell, he’d justified his selection over Umesh and by the 4th over his spell, he’d successfully set-up Joe Root and trapped him with a vicious inducker to put India well and truly on top. That 13th over would eventually turn out to be the first step in what would turn out to be Siraj’s most assertive day in an Indian shirt.
The fears that, like in Chennai, Siraj might be in the side just as a seam-bowling option for the worst-case scenario were there. Despite the bounce being true, and despite the pacers giving a hard time to the English batsmen in the first five overs of the day by beating them on both the inside and outside edge, Siraj was taken off the attack in just the sixth over. And it only took Axar Patel - England’s nightmare-bringer - all of two deliveries to strike. By now, it looked like once again picking the pacers might be a mere eyewash; the sight of Axar and Ashwin bowling in tandem for the rest of the day seemed imminent and inevitable.
But so good was Siraj’s second spell that he not only delayed the inevitable but also forced his skipper to completely shift his plans. Given how much England had struggled against spin in the last two Tests, and given the mental scars the Indian spinners had inflicted on the English batsmen - something that was epitomized by the dismissals of both Crawley and Sibley - Ashwin bowling just 8 off the first 52 overs would not have been on Kohli’s agenda - but Siraj forced him to throw all plans out of the window.
Between overs 10 and 17, Siraj conceded 16 runs in 24 deliveries - all 16 of those runs came via boundaries - and picked up a wicket. By the time he was taken off the attack, England had doubled their score and Stokes had raced to 15 at almost run a ball. A fleeting glance at a ball-by-ball score tracker without any context - one over read NB 4 0 0 4 4 0 - might make a layman believe that the rookie seamer failed to pile on the pressure post dismissing Root and let the visitors get away.
Yet reality couldn’t have been more different. For the four-over burst from the Hyderabad lad was so exceptional and breathtaking that, after 38 overs, Kohli had ended up giving Siraj more overs than any other bowler - even more than Axar, despite there being a sharp turn on display as early as the 26th over of the day.
The qualities that Siraj showcased in Australia, where he ended as the highest wicket-taker in the series, were also on display here: like kept putting the ball in the corridor of uncertainty, did not offer the batsmen width, moved the ball both ways, and slid in the odd bouncer that caught the batsmen off guard. In fact, the dismissal of Root - where he trapped the England skipper with a soaring inducker after bowling half a dozen balls that swung away - was reminiscent of the trap he laid to Cameron Green on the first day of the Boxing Day Test. Yet what ultimately made life difficult for England, and in many ways caught them off guard, was the extra yard of pace Siraj generated.
Throughout the day, the right-armer bowled at a considerably higher pace than he ever has thus far in his short Test career and this extra pace, though minimal, unsettled the visitors. Among the many qualities he possesses, this express pace he once generated consistently is something that waned away from his game in the last couple of years, but on Day 1, it made an unlikely appearance. The Bairstow dismissal - where the ball nipped back in from a good length - was clocked at an astonishing 146 kph; in his Test career, at least, there are not many instances - if any - where Siraj has topped that.
“We have studied Jonny Bairstow’s videos and we have seen a pattern that he normally gets out to inswinging balls. Thus I wanted to keep it that way and try to dismiss him. Thankfully the plan worked,” he would later say in the day-end press conference.
But the raw pace was just one of the many undiscovered layers of Siraj that was unraveled today. More impressive, arguably, was his aggression. In the second over of his second spell - the one in which he dismissed Root - Siraj got into a tussle with the one man, as a bowler, you simply do not want to mess with. After being at the receiving end of a sharp bouncer, Stokes had some rather strong words for the youngster. Yet while letting the ball talk is something you’d expect Siraj to do - at least we’ve been accustomed to it, to date - he went a step ahead and exchanged words. Some may see it as an unnecessary trait that he’d be better off curbing, but the mini sledge-off between Siraj and Stokes was almost emblematic of the 26-year-old starting to get comfortable in his own skin at the international scene.
More than his performance, that of Siraj coming into his own, you think, would be the biggest takeaway for the management from the Hyderabad gun’s stellar showing today. Harsha Bhogle on air quipped how Siraj is someone who knows and understands his game really well but while the number of matches the seamer has played might suggest he still is a greenhorn learning the trade, his performances have been akin to an old, seasoned pro who precisely knows not just what to do, but also how and when.
India certainly did not miss Umesh Yadav today, and, should Siraj continue to grow the way he has, one imagines that they certainly won’t miss the services of the Vidarbha man anytime soon.