Sidharth Monga, ESPNcricinfo
THERE is a lovely Instagram video posted by Mohammed Siraj from Virat Kohli’s birthday during this IPL. On a yacht party, he has got the DJ to play “Miya Bhai“, a Hyderabadi song, and he is doing the most joyful uninhibited Marfa that nobody in the side can keep up with. There are team-mates leaving literally exhausted but Siraj keeps going.
The Marfa dance is popular among the Hyderabadi Muslims, and has roots in Afro-Arab music. Miya Bhai is an eponymous song performed by the then 18-year-old Ruhaan Arshad, also known as Miya Bhai. It glorifies the already celebrated lifestyle of the Hyderabadi Muslims while also having a laugh at himself and his community.
Among his team-mates Siraj is known as Miya Bhai. It is a term of respect and endearment put together. Miya is sir, Bhai is brother. The song just talks of the qualities – or, a “flex” in today’s language – of the Hyderabadi Muslims, one of which is “khandani daulat dhuen mein udaye“. Which is, to smoke away the family wealth as a flex.
Siraj wasn’t born into any family wealth. Not in the conventional sense. The wealth he inherited from his family was the strength and athleticism that he has honed tirelessly to become a fast bowler at the top level. That is not wealth you blow away.
The wealth Siraj has to blow away is the raw emotion he feels when playing the cricket. It is for everyone to bask in: the joy at doing the improvised dab upon taking a wicket, the energy of his dance, the pain at being abused racially, the tears at taking a five-for. Life is too short to keep it bottled in. Or to not use the conventional wealth generated from this game to give his parents a better life, to end his father’s life as a rickshaw-driver, to buy them a house, get them to Haj, the biggest wish for a practising Muslim.
It is just as well that this Miya Bhai did all that because his father didn’t live long enough to see his other dream come true: to watch his son play Test cricket for India. Life is too short. That’s what drove him to tears during the national anthem in Sydney. The kind of “good Muslim” comments that it attracted, or some of the vitriol his Instagram post generated, tells you Miya Bhai is not an identity to wear lightly in today’s India, but Siraj does it so effortlessly, as he does most other things on a cricket field.
In just his third Test, Siraj is the leader of the attack and now has a five-for on his first tour to Australia. It was a fraught debut because apart from Jasprit Bumrah, Indian bowlers’ recent debuts away from home haven’t led to long careers. Before Bumrah these came out of desperation either before time – Jaydev Unadkat, for example – or too late – Pankaj Singh perhaps.
Bumrah was a freak who found himself at home in Test cricket despite having not played any first-class cricket in the year leading into that debut. Siraj’s case was different: he is a more conventional bowler who doesn’t have the gifts of Bumrah, which frankly very few have. He was good enough, though, to be identified as the next fast bowler, given enough A matches as experience, including in Australia. He was coming back to the coach under whom he excelled when he started playing for Hyderabad, Bharat Arun, who is actually more an angel, a farishta, to Siraj than coach.
Siraj was a nets bowler when Royal Challengers Bangalore were playing in Hyderabad. Arun was with RCB at the time. He was so impressed he pushed for Siraj where he could, and as fate would have it, he was the Hyderabad coach in the Ranji Trophy next year. Siraj was the third-highest wicket-taker in the tournament that year. Whenever he is tense about something, Arun calms him down by just telling him good he is.
Siraj played the whole IPL worried about his father’s health, who had a lungs condition and was in and out of the hospital. Siraj told RCB’s YouTube channel that he would break down every time he called home. If his father was out of the hospital, he would feel lighter that day and enjoy his cricket more. It was in this state that he chose to tour Australia. Then he missed his father’s funeral because going back would mean another hard quarantine upon coming back. And that would delay what his father wanted him to do: play Test cricket.
In Test cricket, as early as his first two wickets, Siraj showed he understood what it was mostly about. And when someone so skilled and fit talks about it, it sounds ridiculously simple. Keep bowling to your field at your best pace – that got him Marnus Labuschagne caught at leg gully – and change up after you have got the batsman used to one kind of delivery – which brought him Cameron Green with an inswinger after a series of outswingers.
And now some of the Miya Bhai flex comes in. “Arun sir told me, ‘Jo tu domestic karke aaya, A cricket mein karke aaya, wohi karna hai. Experience kuch nahi hai.'” Basically Arun told him he just needs to repeat what he has done in domestic cricket and A cricket, and that experience is nothing.
In three Tests, Siraj has lived up to all of Arun’s expectations and the reward is in the five-for and the eyes that welled up as he walked back holding the ball aloft and likely thought of his father and their struggles. Only two men have had had a better series when making their debut in Australia, and both played more Tests than Siraj’s three. Not too unlike in his Instagram comments section, there were some in the crowd who called him names, but Siraj had introduced himself to everyone, “Apun ko bolte Miya Bhai.”
Do yourself a favour, and take the ride along with him: this Miya Bhai has the skill and the endurance, and also the willingness to take you along.