July 13, 2024

When MS Dhoni swung his bat to a score a six and deliver India’s second ICC Cricket World Cup title at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium in 2011, more than 700km (434 miles) away in Hyderabad, a 16-year-old Mohammed Siraj was cultivating his dream of playing for India.

On Wednesday, the 29-year-old will steam in with the ball in his hand as the world’s top one-day international (ODI) bowler when India take on New Zealand in the 2023 tournament’s first semifinal at the same storied venue.

The tall and athletic pacer from Hyderabad in southern India has come a long way from bowling in slippers on dusty grounds to becoming a household name in the cricket-obsessed country.

In September, he took five Sri Lankan wickets in 16 balls – the joint fastest five-wicket haul in ODI history – and ended with figures of 6-21 as India romped to a 10-wicket win in the Asia Cup final.

Siraj’s performance left his captain, Rohit Sharma, befuddled as he spoke about the fast bowler after the match.

“It was Siraj’s day to be a hero, and he stood up for the team,” Rohit said, heaping praise on the right-arm quick, who bowled a seven-over opening spell, which also saw him run all the way down the long-on boundary to field off his own bowling.

“He wanted to keep going. I wanted him to keep going, but our trainer asked him to stop to maintain his fitness [for the World Cup].”

Come the World Cup and its biggest group-stage match between India and Pakistan, Siraj stood up for his team once more. He dismissed Pakistan’s in-form batter Abdullah Shafique to break the opening stand and followed up with the prize wicket of their star captain, Babar Azam.

‘You need money to buy shoes’

Lovingly nicknamed “Miya Bhai” (sir, brother) by his Indian teammates, Siraj first picked up the game as a teenager. He would skip lessons in school and then in college to go play cricket on the dusty expanse of the Eidgah (Eid prayer venue) ground in Hyderabad.

“It would be jam-packed with at least 15 matches taking place at the same time,” Siraj said during a podcast with his Indian Premier League (IPL) team Royal Challengers Bangalore.

His father, Mohammed Ghous, drove an auto rickshaw all day, and his mother, Shabana Begum, worked as a cleaner and cook in the neighbourhood.

Siraj’s love for the game often landed him in trouble with his mother, but Ghous always backed his son’s ambition. The teenager’s first taste of competitive cricket came with his uncle’s club team.

“I took nine wickets in my first ever club match and played in the local league for four years,” Siraj told Indian sports journalist Gaurav Kapoor in an interview.

The teenaged Siraj would play in slippers because his daily pocket money of 70 rupees (less than $1) was not enough to buy sports shoes.

“I bowled in slippers until I was 19. You need money to buy shoes, and I didn’t have any. Had I asked my parents to buy me shoes, they would have probably thrashed me with a pair,” he joked.

India's Mdohammed Siraj, right, celebrates after taking the wicket clean bowled of England's James Anderson, with India winning the 2nd test, during the fifth day of the 2nd cricket test between England and India at Lord's cricket ground in London, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Mohammed Siraj celebrates after taking the wicket of James Anderson to seal India’s win in a Test match against England at Lord’s [File: Alastair Grant/AP Photo]

‘I only knew how to bowl fast’

The cricket-mad teenager had been bowling with a tennis ball until he was selected by a local club that offered to pay for his services in addition to offering a cricket kit and a pair of spikes.

Siraj’s eyes lit up when he saw the shoes but “didn’t know why they had nails sticking out at the bottom”.

“They handed me the new ball right away – it was my first time holding a proper cricket ball – and I didn’t know what to do with the seam. I only knew how to run in and bowl fast, so I did.”

Siraj took five wickets in his first match as he left the opposition beaten by his pace.

Of his 70-rupee pocket money, 40 now went towards fuelling up his trusty old motorcycle that needed a long run-up to get going, much like the fast bowler himself.

“Once I was playing regular cricket, I used to go to the local ground on my bike while the other players arrived in big cars, and I would feel so ashamed of having to push-start my bike that I waited for every one to leave before making my way home,” he said.

Once Siraj had figured out what to do with the ball’s seam, how to bowl in and out swing, he was knocking on the doors of regional teams.

“When I was named amongst the under-23 probables, I got struck by dengue fever and could feel the opportunity slip away,” he recalled.

Determined not to let his chance go, Siraj turned up for practice on his dad’s auto rickshaw and participated in the full session out of sheer passion for the game.

India face Sri Lanka at the 2023 Cricket World Cup
Siraj took three wickets as India beat Sri Lanka in their Cricket World Cup group match in Mumbai [Rafiq Maqbool/AP Photo]

Special connection with Virat Kohli

Siraj’s under-23 exploits brought him a chance to bowl in the nets to the country’s stars during IPL practice sessions.

“I pelted KL Rahul with so many bouncers that he got mad at me and asked me if I knew how to bowl anything else,” Siraj said.

But it wasn’t only Rahul who saw him that day. Siraj had caught the eye of bowling coach Bharat Arun, who later worked with India’s national team, and he picked the lanky pacer in Hyderabad’s squad for Ranji Trophy – India’s premier domestic tournament – in 2015.

Siraj knew his career was on an upwards trajectory, but something kept bothering him.

“I wanted to make enough money to put my parents at ease,” he said.

That money came two years later when he was picked in the 2016 IPL auction for 26 million rupees ($312,200) by the Hyderabad franchise.

“When I left home to join the [IPL] team, I told my brother to find a house for our family by the time I was back.”

Siraj moved to star batter and then-India captain Virat Kohli’s RCB team a year later.

He loves to tell the story of hosting his star-studded, Kohli-led IPL team at his new home in Hyderabad.

“Virat Bhai told me he couldn’t make it to the dinner because of a stiff back, and we are all heartbroken, but in fact he wanted to surprise me and my family. It’s the best surprise any one has ever given me.”

‘From there to here’

During his tenure as India’s all-format captain, Kohli showed a special liking to out-and-out fast bowlers because they matched his aggressive approach towards the game.

In Siraj, Kohli had found one such cog in the wheel.

The bowler, who is a self-confessed Kohli fan, added a new threat to India’s bowling attack and took a five-wicket haul on an emotional first Test series in Australia.

Ghous passed away while the Indian team was under quarantine prior to the series, and Siraj’s family urged him to stay in Australia to fulfill his biggest supporter’s lifelong dream.

When Siraj lined up with his teammates for India’s national anthem before his first Test match, tears rolled down his face.

“I had finally fulfilled dad’s dream, but he wasn’t around to see it,” he would say after the match.

“It also made me realise how far I had come. ‘Kahan thay, kahan agaye’ [From there to here].”

Siraj, now a regular name on the Indian teamsheet, has bagged 12 wickets in the World Cup so far and will be raring to go against a strong New Zealand batting lineup.

When he lines up to represent India in his 40th and most important ODI match at the Indian home of cricket on Wednesday, Siraj will be hundreds of kilometres and 14 strife-filled years away from the dusty, small-town and village grounds of his childhood.

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