VIJAY LOKAPALLY | 25th August 2021

“I had invited (VVS) Laxman and these boys were excited to meet him,” recalled Azeem.

Siraj’s mother was a help at his house and always had just one request.

“Please see if my son can play cricket. He doesn’t study at all.”

After years of tennis ball cricket in some nondescript grounds of Hyderabad, Siraj made an astonishing turnaround, courtesy of his mentor, Abdul Azeem, who had played 73 first-class matches for Hyderabad and South Zone.

The mentor and coach behind the rise of Siraj, Abdul Azeem (Courtesy: Telengana Today)

It happened to be the defining moment of the lord of Lord’s when Azeem put in a word with the state selectors to give the-then 20-year-old a chance to shine.

Siraj, who had made an impression on state batsman P. Akshath Reddy, unsurprisingly, did not feature in the 30 shortlisted for the zonal trial matches.

When Azeem received a call from Siraj’s mother, Shabnam, who was gutted at her son not been selected for the trial matches, the coach once again pleaded with the selectors. This time however, the request was granted and the stage was set for Siraj to shine.

And much to Azeem’s delight, the speedster took a bagful of wickets too.

“I supported him because I saw a spark in him. He appeared ordinary initially but I was pleasantly stunned to see the progress he had made. He looked special with every season he played.”

If Mohammed Siraj oozes aggression and cuts a menacing figure for any batsman on the planet, the credit lies with none other than Azeem.

“He was raw but strong. That was a quality to be proud of if you want to bowl fast. What I liked was that he never allowed any pressure to dictate his cricket”, remembered Azeem.

We all know the humble background that marked Siraj’s childhood and much of his teenage years. The lad just wanted to play cricket and his mother knew just one person who could make the difference- Azeem.

From humble beginnings to becoming a national hero, Siraj is the people’s champion

He stood by Siraj’s side, who had grown up in the vicinity of his house in Lakdi ka pul, one of the oldest suburbs in Hyderabad. At the time, the boy played for the little-known Charminar Cricket Club, making batsmen back away with his searing pace.

The talent was undeniable but Siraj had hardly played any competitive red-ball cricket to the extent where he did not even have bowling spikes.

Azeem sent him off to Kamlesh Parikh’s sports shop in Secunderabad and the latter was kind enough to gift Siraj a pair of spikes. There was no looking back for the 20-year-old from the time he wore those shoes.

Siraj’s debut, against Services at the Palam ground in November 2015, was uneventful despite the green top that paved his selection in the playing XI.

After a fruitful season in 2016-17, Siraj spent more time at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore, honing his skills, temperament and skills. Just one first-class match in the ‘17-18 season was all he had under his best but Azeem was happy the Hyderabad boy was now being readied for bigger battles.

The 2016-17 season made the National selectors take notice of Siraj. If bagging 41 wickets in total wasn’t enough to make the higher ups sit back and scratch their heads at his talent, his best against Mumbai where he claimed 9 victims certainly was.

I remember seeing him at Lucknow, in the Ranji match against Andhra. He was nippy and charged up. “Watch out for this lad. He is damn good,” bowling coach Bharat Arun told me. He was right to say the least.

It was a coincidence that Azeem and Siraj both had a gully cricket background.

While the apprentice to the master was sought-after to perform in local matches under the floodlight, the master himself had picked up his own lessons in neighbourhood clashes and then the league to make his way into the state side.

And seeing Siraj go from a raw prospect to a national treasure, Azeem couldn’t be any prouder than he is.

“Siraj is nippy, has movement to keep the batsmen guessing and is a dangerous bowler once he gets his rhythm right. Honestly, I never believed he would play for India but I am so happy he has now emerged as a bowler to dread in international cricket.”

The original Emperor of Hyderabad, Mohammad Azharuddin, calls Siraj a “nice boy” but realizes what a seriously bright talent the 27-year old is.

“He is a very good Test match bowler. I know people like him as a ODI and T20 bowler but he is going to serve India long in the longer version of the game. He is a lot quicker when he bowls in Tests and is comfortable producing long spells.

Siraj also has a tremendous wicket-taking ability. See how hard he has worked on reaching where he is. All those sacrifices when trying to impress the selectors have helped him become such a match-winner. Coming froma  humble background has also made him understand the importance of grabbing the opportunity. I have met a few times and always found him a nice boy.”

A certain other emperor of Hyderabad, VVS Laxman also sheds light on the emerging prince of the city.

“I’m proud of Siraj. He has grabbed the opportunities and developed as a fast bowler. He’s an inspirational figure. He had no cricket background but never looked back once he got the chance at the top level. He has always looked to do well. I am glad he has the support of Virat (Kohli) who knows Siraj is an important bowler”

Two wickets in two balls in the Lord’s Test saw Siraj take his tally to 11 in the first two Tests. His `shushing’ gesture with a finger on his lips is an image that describes him best.

“Don’t talk. Perform.”

Now that he has established himself as a prime member of India’s pace battery, Mohamed Siraj can proudly count Laxman among his admirers. Maybe, it is VVS’ turn to take a selfie with the lad who deserves his own throne in Hyderabad.

Life really does come full circle.