The win against Australia in the Test series held Down Under in 2020-21 would rank among the best that India have achieved since they made their bow into the rarefied world of international cricket nine decades ago. It was a classic story in the lines of the Biblical fable of David besting Goliath. Here was a side, beleaguered and written off as a bunch of no-hopers, coming back from behind to inflict an upset victory over their much fancied opponents. The fact that this victory was achieved after being dismissed for their lowest ever Test score in the first Test and in the absence of their regular captain and best players, who were down and out due to reasons ranging from injury to paternity leave, added lustre to this triumph.
Two among the players who survived this baptism by fire of tackling the mean Aussie machine in their own backyard and emerged in flying colours were Shubman Gill and Mohammed Siraj. Both made their Test debut in the second Test of this series and it is unlikely that either would have played had all players been fit and available. They grabbed the opportunity with both hands and quickly came to terms with the playing conditions and the opposition. Most importantly, they played crucial roles in the final Test of the series at Brisbane, where India stunned the hosts by successfully chasing a victory target of 329, losing only 7 wickets. Gill laid the foundation for mounting a successful chase, hitting a stroke-filled 91 that included eight fours and two sixes. Siraj, on his part, took his first five-wicket haul in Test cricket in the second innings, returning figures of 5/73 off 19.5 overs.
Gill and Siraj are products of the system in place in India and have come up through the ranks of domestic cricket. Born into a family of farmers in Fazilka in Punjab, Gill was initiated into the game by his father Lakhwinder Singh who noticed his talent at an early age. Lakhwinder Singh was so impressed by young Gill’s passion for the sport that he moved his family to a rented premises near the stadium of Punjab Cricket Association at Mohali so that the boy could attend the coaching sessions conducted there. This sacrifice yielded dividends as Gill made his way to the Punjab under-16 side, where he began with a double century on his debut. A string of good knocks at this level earned the attention of the national junior selectors and he was drafted into the Indian U-19 squad. He won the player of the tournament in the ICC U-19 World Cup in 2018 after scoring 372 runs in this championship. A call to the Punjab side for domestic first-class mates followed and Kolkata Knight Riders signed him up during the 2018 Indian Premier League (IPL) auction.
Gill was drafted into the national side touring New Zealand in January, 2019, for the limited overs’ matches and made his debut in One Day Internationals at Hamilton. Though he could not do much with the willow in a low-scoring match, he soon became a regular member of the India ‘A’ team, and, before long, was elevated as the skipper. He was amongst the reserves for the Test matches during the home series against South Africa in September, 2020, before being selected for the tour of Australia in December. He made his debut in the second test of the series at Melbourne and showed his mettle with compact knocks in both innings. The composure he displayed while tackling the Aussie attack was one of the factors that helped India to come back and win this game, after the disastrous outing in the first Test where the visitors were shot out for a paltry 36 in their second innings.
Siraj, on the other hand, hailed from for a very modest background but his father, an auto rickshaw driver, did all he could to encourage the cricketing pursuits of his son.Siraj was a late entrant into the game and started playing with a regular cricket ball only in 2015, by which time he had entered his twenties. His natural talent to bowl fast was noticed by Hyderabad selectors and he soon made his way to the state side for Ranji Trophy. He finished as the highest wicket-taker in this tournament in 2016-17, which earned him a contract with Sunrisers Hyderabad during the 2017 IPL auction. A tidy performance in this championship earned him a call to the national side for T20 Internationals against New Zealand later that year. Though he conceded 53 runs off 4 overs on his debut at Rajkot, he bagged the wicket of Kane Williamson, one of the best batsmen in the world.
Siraj spent the next three years on the fringes of the national squad getting an occasional look-in for matches played with white ball whenever an opening arose. He was not an automatic choice for the tour of Australia in 2020-21 but selectors threw in their lot behind him after a prolonged discussion. An injury to Mohammed Shami after the first Test opened the door of opportunity for him. Siraj bowled well within himself on his Test debut and picked up five wickets - 2 for 40 in the first innings and 3 for 37 in the second - thus playing playing an important role in restricting the Aussies in both innings. He grew in confidence and stature as the series progressed and quickly moved into the role of the spearhead of the attack, which he performed with panache in the last Test.
Neither Gill nor Siraj had a smooth ride in international cricket after the initial start. In the first place, neither were certain of their place in the side once the regulars returned. Both struggled initially in the longer duration version of the game in Indian pitches, which are slower and tend to help the spin bowlers. There were similar issues in coping with the demands of white-ball cricket as well. Gill had to adjust his technique to meet with the requirements of limited overs cricket and bide his time patiently. Siraj, who had started out with only an in-swinger in his armoury, has added an out-swinger besides a “wobbler”, which lends a deadly effect to his off cutter. These innovations and improvements to their skillsets have helped them both to find their feet in limited overs cricket in the international arena in recent times.
Gill’s century against Sri Lanka and his knock of 208 against New Zealand, which incidentally made him the youngest double centurion in the history of One-Day Internationals, in a span of five days makes him one of the most exciting top order batsmen in international cricket. Siraj’s incisive bowling with the new ball and intelligent spells at the death make him the best performing bowler in the Indian camp at present. Their good form augurs well for India and it is upto the team management to ensure that they are fit and raring to go when the ICC World Cup commences towards the latter part of the year. The duo will need to attain and maintain top form during this championship if India are to repeat the trimph achieved by Dhoni and his men at Mumbai 12 years ago.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)