Simple and cerebral: How Mohammad Siraj took 6 for 15 to bowl out South Africa for 55

Targeting the leg-side of left-handed batsmen proved to be an effective strategy on the opening day of the second and last Test.

“Reflecting on our batting performances against Australia and England,” Rohit Sharma would recall in the immediate aftermath of the challenging encounter at Centurion. While he didn’t initially highlight the bowling aspect from those memories – considering their conceded runs on a bowler-friendly surface – the bowlers, especially the opening pair of Mohammad Siraj and Jasprit Bumrah, emphatically showcased their lethal capabilities. Their new-ball spells during the match left a lasting impression, notably dismissing South Africa for just 55 runs in the first innings.

In the upcoming highlights package, you might witness a couple of remarkable moments, but it’s the underlying strategy – refreshingly uncomplicated yet remarkably thoughtful – that deserves appreciation following the wastefulness in Centurion.

This approach carried echoes of India’s 2021 triumph in Australia but with an offensive twist: targeting the leg-side game of the two most successful left-handers from the previous Test while adopting a straightforward approach against the right-handers. Against Australia, the initial objective was to assess the batsmen’s strengths and patience, such as Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, by restricting them with a packed on-side field. In the current scenario, the focus shifted to left-handers Dean Elgar and Tony de Zorzi, employing a more aggressive approach with the aim of securing dismissals.

The open-chested aggressor, Siraj, strategically positioned a leg-slip and a deep short-leg placed quite square (noteworthy as it deviated from the usual captain’s positioning by Rohit Sharma). He consistently directed deliveries towards Elgar on the middle and leg line, putting his balance to the test.

Jasprit Bumrah, who had predominantly been directing deliveries away from left-handers in Centurion, opted for a sequence of inward-curlers. He even curved in yorkers aimed at Elgar and Zorzi. The leg-slip position was consistently maintained, leaving little space unguarded on that side. In contrast, the off-side appeared largely deserted.

Richard Elgar, the father of Elgar, relies on a particular sign to gauge whether his son is poised for a successful day with the bat. His indicator is the early occurrence of a leg-side tuck through square-leg, and if this happens, he is content.

“It may sound peculiar, but that’s my indication that he is focused, balanced, and ready for a good day,” Richard shared with this newspaper. The moment presented itself on the fourth ball Elgar faced, the first from Bumrah. However, Elgar’s attempted nudge transformed into a shovel, and the ball just cleared midwicket. Could this be a sign of what lay ahead?

Despite facing more curlers from both seamers, Elgar struggled to break free. The batsman, known for his impressive inside-out cover drives in the previous game, found no success in that area. Nonetheless, showing his characteristic determination, he appeared to hunker down in the struggle, persistently trying to shovel his way out of the situation.

Then came a sequence of deliveries from Siraj directed towards the leg and middle line, prompting Elgar to employ his hop-and-stab or stand-and-tuck techniques. Siraj then introduced a tempting bait, a length delivery outside off. In Elgar’s imagination, vast empty spaces on the off-side lured him into a swift response, akin to a real estate agent eyeing a property. However, Siraj infused not just temptation but also deception, as the ball subtly straightened, leaving Elgar cramped for room. Despite his attempts to stab it out, the off-side game he had been focused on for a considerable time was not quite in sync, leading to the unsurprising outcome of dragging the ball onto his stumps.

Simultaneously, Siraj methodically worked over Tony de Zorzi, who, in contrast to Aiden Markram’s struggles, displayed a confident approach. Markram, a consistent victim unable to judge the length early, predictably edged Siraj behind while attempting shots down the line. Zorzi, on the other hand, exhibited a crisp, compact, and secure style. Siraj swiftly adjusted, targeting the leg and middle, aiming at Zorzi’s legs. Once again, the leg slip and the leg-side remained densely packed. Eventually, Zorzi, feeling constrained amidst the leg-side fielders, nervously attempted a glance, resulting in KL Rahul showcasing his proficient wicketkeeping skills.

Bumrah effectively dismantled the debutant right-hander Tristan Stubbs, deploying a variety of tricks with alternating lengths. Recognizing the vulnerability, Bumrah capitalized on one of his customary inward-kickers that ricocheted off Stubbs’s thigh pad. It became evident that this approach was yielding results. Another delivery, adhering to the same strategic code, led to Stubbs awkwardly stabbing the ball off the inner edge, ultimately finding Rohit stationed at short-leg.

At 15 for 4 in the 10th over, India hadn’t even needed to turn to Prasidh Krishna or Mukesh Kumar yet.

During his second spell, Siraj ensured that neither Krishna nor Mukesh had to exert themselves too much. The delivery to David Bedingham left a lasting impression on both the bowler and the batsman. A well-executed kicker from just behind the length forced the ball to leap off the splice of the bat, finding its way to the slip cordon. Yashasvi Jaiswal displayed excellent reflexes, lunging in either direction to secure the catches.

With Kohli providing guidance to both the bowlers and the captain – evident in his gestures to have a short leg for Elgar earlier – more success awaited Siraj. Following Kohli’s advice to target the off-stump line against Marco Jansen, Siraj implemented the strategy, leading to Jansen’s dismissal and securing his third five-for. In his ninth over, he compelled wicketkeeper Kyle Verreynne to edge a drive, concluding with his career-best Test figures of 6 for 15. South Africa, under pressure, hastened towards the end.

It now falls upon the Indian batsmen to establish a substantial advantage in the game. However, accomplishing this task proves to be more challenging than expressing the intention, given the nature of the track and the proficiency of the formidable South African bowling attack.

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