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. 13 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.
Excerpted from the book Mission Domination: An Unfinished Quest by Boria Majumdar and Kushan Sarkar. Published by Simon & Schuster.