Mission Domination: An Unfinished QuestBoria Majumdar and Kushan Sarkar
Simon & Schuster
240 pages|₹ 499
Mohammed Siraj (centre) after dismissing David Warner in the fourth Test against Australia at The Gabba in Brisbane, January 15
THERE IS SO much more to sport than winning or losing. That one team will win on a given day and one will lose despite its best effort is only a surface reality. What plays backstage, stuff that we rarely see, may well at times convey the true significance of sport. The Brisbane Test match was one such. On the face of it, the Test match was one of the greatest ever in cricketing history. It marked the culmination of a fantastic summer for India and saw the coming to the fore of a new India. But backstage a lot many things were happening and Mohammed Siraj was at the centre of it all.
We have watched and studied Indian cricket for a living. And needless to say, it has a rich history. We started playing international cricket in 1932 and have had many incredible moments in the years gone by. While none can top the Indian takeover of Lord’s in 1983, the one moment from the Brisbane Test that will forever remain a perfect picture postcard for India was when Mohammed Siraj was handed over the Indian flag by his teammates and he led the victory parade around the Gabba with thousands of Indian supporters cheering their newfound hero. Here was a young man from Hyderabad who had just lost his father but could not come back to his family, bringing smiles to a billion faces with his illustrious teammates cheering him on. He wasn’t Muslim or Hindu. He was an Indian. This was the India of our dreams turning into a reality. Not the toxic India that plays out every day on national television. Not the divisive India that plays into the hands of politicians. Not the India deeply divided by the privileged and the underprivileged. This was an India of hope and an India that dares to dream. Siraj isn’t the most eloquent. He need not be. What he is and will be is what our country is all about. Hard work and more hard work with dignity and integrity, and such effort pays off.
Let us put a few things on record. Siraj had lost his father during the statutory period of 14 days hard quarantine in Australia in November. What this meant was that none of his teammates could even go to his room to give him a shoulder to cry on. At the time there were cops outside every room just in case the Indians tried to violate protocol. They were being guarded as prisoners who could export Covid to Australia. As a result, his teammates were on video calls with him all day and were concerned he wouldn’t do something drastic or damaging to himself. Only the physio could go to his room to treat him, and Nitin Patel used the window to go and console the young man who was in mourning. Siraj broke down on multiple occasions, which is only natural but never gave up. He was steadfast and resolute. He wanted to fulfil his father’s wish of doing his best for India and when the opportunity came his way at the MCG on the huge occasion of the Boxing Day Test, he just did not want to let it go. In fact, he said to us he was abusing himself for failing and coaxed himself to push harder on debut. “I was telling myself that I had done nothing worthwhile in the white ball games. And here are the same batsmen—Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne, who I had bowled to and had success against while playing for India A. Then why couldn’t I do so at this stage? I had to. There was no turning back.”
Siraj did not turn back. Thirteen wickets later he ended up as India’s highest wicket-taker. It was only fitting that his teammates handed him the tricolour during the team’s victory march. He was so much more than a cricketer. He was a young boy who had turned into a man in the course of the two months in Australia. He was now the head of his family who was taking over from his father. He fought on for a billion people ravaged by Covid-19. He shouldered on and emerged a winner. Good things indeed happen to good people, and good men do come first in the end. Siraj is proof. This team is proof, and that’s our life lesson from this tour.
And by the way, we will not judge Siraj by his religion. How many of us thought if he was Hindu or Muslim when he was walking with the national flag? How many of us thought if he was Muslim when he broke down while listening to the national anthem? How many of us even bothered about his religion or caste or other markers of identity? All that mattered to us was that he was the leader of our attack and was doing so in only his third Test match. He was filling in for the genius Jasprit Bumrah and needless to say, it wasn’t an easy task. Yet he was up to it. He is the perfect underdog story, which we so identify with in India, and that’s what makes him so much more relevant. Siraj has failed on multiple occasions in the past, just like so many of us have. But he dared to push and eventually win. Can we all do the same? A little more discipline and self-restraint and we can indeed win our own little battles. If Siraj can, we can. That’s the backstage lesson we need to imbibe.
The Indian team had just returned home victorious, and every media professional in the country was under pressure to speak to the boys exclusively. To get them first is a media obsession, and we too were no different. Siraj, needless to say, was the prize interview. Calls to him were going unanswered, and it was important that we spoke to him as soon as possible to better understand and celebrate his story. That’s when R Sridhar, the team’s fielding coach, came to the rescue.
Siraj was the embodiment of all that is good about sport. Siraj had placed his country above all else, and in doing so had fulfilled the wishes of his late father
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Sridhar and Siraj had both travelled to Hyderabad together and when Sridhar picked up the call it was only natural that we asked him to connect us to Siraj. Always helpful, Sridhar did so without any further debate and we had our man. Siraj had just reached home and looked exhausted. While the video call connection wasn’t the best, we could see he was sitting on the floor with his suitcase open and things all over. Back home after months, it was a very emotional moment for him and the family. “Abhi thodi der pehle ghar pahucha mein (Just got home a little while ago),” he said to us with a smile. “Main graveyard gaya tha pitaji se milne isiliye der huwa (I went to the graveyard to meet my father that’s why got late),” he was emotional. Suddenly, the interview had turned sombre. Here was a cricketer who was also a son and a brother. He had not seen his father for the last time and the first thing he did on landing in India was go to the graveyard to pay his last respects. “Wo agar aaj rehte to bahut khush hote (If he was around today he would be very happy),” Siraj said with a smile that could hardly conceal his grief. It was important, we changed the context of the interview and made him feel better.
“So what did your mother tell you when she first saw you?” we asked him. “Have you shown her the ball with which you picked your first fifer?” was the follow-up act just to distract him a little. It worked and Siraj was up in a flash. The glittering gold chain around his neck fluttering, he was all excited. “Yes, I have the ball here only. And I will keep it with me always,” he said. Thereafter what he did was pure innocence. “Aap baat karte rahiye (You keep talking),” he said to us and started searching for the ball. The suitcase was literally overturned before our eyes, and when he figured out that the ball wasn’t there, he disappeared for a few seconds. And on return he had a beaming smile on his face. “Yeh dekhiye (Look at this),” he was showing us the ball. “Maine is pe sab likh ke rakha hai (I have written down everything on this),” he was showing us his priceless possession.
The ball had the date, venue and his bowling figures inscribed on it, handiwork of Sridhar as we were later told. “Yes, it was important we did that for him. This moment will not come back ever again and the ball will be a reminder of what he had achieved against all odds,” said Sridhar.
What Sridhar could not have written was what Siraj had gone through when he first got the news that his father was no more. How did he deal with the shock? Did the thought of returning to India to be with the family ever cross his mind? How difficult was it to spend the days alone with no one to talk to and no one to lean on to shed a tear? We had a torrent of questions lined up and Siraj was receptive to all of them.
“It was hard. Very, very hard. No one should have to experience a situation like this. To be honest, I did not know what to do.” He was emotional and we could see the words were getting stuck. Once he got back his bearing, he went on. “My family stood by me all the while. They said to me that my father would have wanted me to be with the team and realise his dream of playing for India. That’s what he always wanted of me. In fact, that’s what mattered to him the most and I am glad I was able to do it for him,” said Siraj.
“The biggest problem was to be confined to the room. If I was allowed to meet the other players and just talk to them, it would have helped. All you need at times like these are friends you can open up to. With the hard quarantine in place, that’s what we were denied in Australia and that’s what made things that much more difficult,” he concluded.
In that one moment, Siraj was the embodiment of all that is good about sport. More than winning or losing, sport is about values. It is a life lesson, and that’s what makes sport what it is. Siraj had placed his country above all else, and in doing so had fulfilled the wishes of his late father. Much more than his five-wicket haul, this is what mattered to us in India. And his newfound stardom had not changed him. Rather than going to a felicitation or meeting a politician on return, he visited his father’s graveyard to pay his respects. And thereafter, he went home to his family, who hadn’t seen him for a good five months since the start of the IPL.
For the family, the Siraj who returned to Hyderabad that afternoon was a very different Siraj to the one who had left in August to join the RCB IPL camp in the UAE. He was an aspiring cricketer then. He was a star now. He was keen on breaking open the door to the national team in August. He had starred in an Indian series win in Australia in January. In a matter of months, his world had changed. Suddenly he had it all. Money, fame, media glare were all knocking on his door. But Siraj the person hadn’t changed. “Aap interview kar lijiye kyunki uske bad hum sab ek saath bait ke khana khayenge (You finish your interview and after that we’ll all sit together and eat),” he said to us. He was still a 25-year-old son and brother who was excited to come home and have a home-cooked meal. Mohammed Siraj is the story of modern India and all that is good about it. He is the perfect example of dreams turning into reality and proof of what Indian cricket is capable of. As Bharat Arun said to us, “You see him and you have a good feeling. You start to feel there is something innately good about this sport. There is reward for hard work in the end.”
He is right.
(This is an edited excerpt from Mission Domination: An Unfinished Quest by Boria Majumdar and Kushan Sarkar | Simon & Schuster | 240 pages | Rs 499)