It’s never prudent to speculate on players’ emotions, but even in the din of 36 all out, and the exits of two more senior players, it’s hard to imagine Siraj and Saini are feeling anything but excitement.
It has taken them years of consistently being the frontrunners in India’s representational teams to break into a bowling line-up that’s been described by various people, including those in it, as India’s best ever. A line-up where it took injuries to two key members for one spot to open up.
Not bad for a pair who hadn’t played anything beyond tennis-ball cricket through their formative years. To say it’s the stuff of dreams would be reductive; to Saini, who wears a wolf tattoo to signify his free spirit, and who just wanted to bowl fast as Gautam Gambhir fought to make him a regular in Delhi cricket. And to Siraj, who might well have been unavailable for this game if he’d chosen to go home after his father’s death this month, and who stayed after his mother reminded him that it was his father’s wish to see him play for India.
Still, it is difficult not to feel wary about their potential entry into Test cricket later this week. Embarrassing losses in the backdrop or not, Indian bowlers over the last decade haven’t debuted well overseas. Apart from Jasprit Bumrah, who is yet to play a Test at home, there is a considerable list of bowlers since the start of 2010 who were handed what now seem like cursed debuts.
Karn Sharma, a fairly successful domestic cricketer and owner of multiple IPL winners’ medals, is perhaps most widely remembered as the latest entrant of that list. His debut in Adelaide in 2014, as then stand-in captain Virat Kohli’s attacking gambit, came with the wickets of David Warner – twice – and Michael Clarke. But at the cost of 238 runs and an economy of 4.85, which was the foreboding of an end. He hasn’t played for India in any format since.
And yet, in some ways – consider he was a spinner in Australia attempting damage control alongside M Vijay and Rohit Sharma – that was one of the better overseas debuts. Go further behind, and you have domestic giants like Jaydev Unadkat, Pankaj Singh, Vinay Kumar, and Abhimanyu Mithun either coming apart on overseas debuts to never play again, or debuting and not holding onto spots over the next few series. Praveen Kumar was successful on tours to England and West Indies, but lasted all of six Tests for a variety of other reasons.
It was the story of the early parts of the decade, India bouncing around from one overseas loss to another, cycling through their best from the Ranji Trophy to form ultimately toothless fast bowling attacks. The best seam bowlers were lost for bite on faster pitches, and the faster ones seemed largely rudderless. In almost each of their cases, they were undercooked.
Any fears now of a bowler not being Test-ready would presumably come from a different, healthier context – perhaps the fact that India’s stringent workload management has kept their key fast bowlers fit for most cricket over the last few years. There has been little room to test a prospective bowler. Shardul Thakur was India’s last fast-bowling debutant, at home in October 2018. Ostensibly, India carry no such fears. At least that was the case before the series began.
“We have a fabulous five,” Ravi Shastri was quoted as saying by Sportstar ahead of this series. “[Umesh] Yadav has the experience. Saini is young and fast. Bumrah one of the best in business. [Mohammed] Shami is raring to go. Siraj is an exciting prospect. You put up runs on the board and watch these fast bowlers hunt the opposition. They can beat Australia in their own den.”
Until the batting meltdown of Adelaide, the script was largely as Shastri had said it would be. In the absence of Kohli, however, India will worry about how to put runs on the board. Without the edge of Shami’s spells with the older ball, the dramatic notion of hunting Australia down, or staging comebacks, will also be restricted – and it generally is, in Melbourne.
But things may not be as bad for a debutant as they have been in the past. Bumrah’s still leading the attack. R Ashwin’s already hit a nice rhythm early in the tour, and Umesh Yadav showed glimpses of that in the first innings. From India’s nets on Wednesday, there is a serious chance that Ravindra Jadeja could be back, and that would make for the best fifth bowler in Test cricket at the moment.
Should Saini or Siraj make it to the Boxing Day Test, they will not struggle for support. But could they still be unprepared?
Since 2015, Shahbaz Nadeem is the only bowler to play more matches for India A, 19, than Siraj (16) and Saini (14). That effectively makes them, at least on numbers, the most experienced options in India’s bowling pool. And on closer look, Siraj’s numbers make a very good case for him.
For starters, that’s 16 of his overall 38 first-class matches played at a higher level than the Ranji Trophy. In those games, he’s taken 70 wickets – second to Nadeem, who has 75 – at 21.88 and a strike rate of 42.2. In comparison, Saini has 34 wickets in 14 matches at 34.35, and strikes at 71.4.
Siraj has also played more cricket overseas, 12 matches stretched across Australia, New Zealand, England, South Africa, and West Indies. In those he has 44 wickets at 27.63 as opposed to Saini’s 20 in 8 matches, at 40.45.
Outside of a statistical analysis, Siraj was the more effective bowler during India’s practice games on this tour, and has previously bowled to the likes of Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne, who were both part of his career-best haul of 8 for 59 in 2018.
If Siraj ends up debuting in Melbourne, the obvious difference from those who were picked on numbers in the past will be that the decision will be better informed, with a lot more than just data, and the bowler much better prepared for a Test match. Saini’s pace and bluster have been among the most exciting things to emerge in Indian cricket over the last 18 months, so apart from the relatively poorer numbers, there is no obvious reason that he doesn’t get picked either. But pace and bluster is not a new phenomenon – bowlers like Yadav and Varun Aaron were all fast-tracked through exactly those attributes, with varying results.
This new structure, the investment in preparing a solid pool, means an Indian bowler is less likely to be forced to learn on the job in the middle of an overseas Test. While that doesn’t guarantee a shift away from the trend for debutants, it does suggest that they are more likely to stay in the fray for longer, and to challenge for incumbent spots. Even if the start is rough. Six years ago, that would have been a Christmas miracle.
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