Speed is his creed: Cricketer Umran Malik

- April 13, 2022
| By : Patriot Bureau |

Express bowler Umran Malik, now playing for SunRisers, is IPL’s gift for Hyderabad from Jammu and Kashmir. This talented son of a fruit seller is now being nurtured by India’s veteran cricketers 

In Image: Umran Malik

Over the years, India has produced a range of express bowlers with a 150 kmph top speed. From Kapil Dev to Javagal Srinath and Ishant Sharma to Jasprit Bumrah, the list of names that have intimidated top batsmen around the world is endless.

But things have changed over the last one-and-a-half decades, ever since the Indian Premier League came into existence. All these pace bowlers have been subjected to harsh treatment by the batters in this shorter format version because of the difficulty of preparing docile wickets for 200-plus scores.

Regardless of any adverse atmosphere around him, a 21-year-old from Gujjar Nagar in Jammu is carrying the baton forward. The SunRisers Hyderabad (SRH) speedster hogged the limelight in his debut 2021 IPL season when he was noticed by none other than Team India captain Virat Kohli for consistently hitting the 150 kmph mark. Out of the 24 legitimate deliveries he bowled in the UAE, 11 were above 145 kmph.

His fastest delivery of 153 kmph was noticed by every cricket fan then. He was aptly rewarded when the Indian selectors included him as a net bowler for India’s T20 World Cup 2021 campaign. This was certainly not a mean feat for someone who was only picked up by the Hyderabad outfit in 2021 because first-choice pacer T Natarajan tested positive for Covid-19.

Though Malik only got a chance in the starting 11 after his team was eliminated from the title race, his sheer speed earned him the honour reserved for only a few.

Now that the new IPL season has begun, Malik is once again in the news for all the right reasons. On Monday, 12 April, the Srinagar-born Malik bowled the five fastest deliveries in the ongoing edition of the IPL’s history during a game against Gujarat Titans (GT). The top five fastest deliveries were registered at 153.3 kmph, 153.1, 152.4, 152.3, and 151.8 kmph.

One of Malik’s short-pitched deliveries hit Gujarat Titans skipper Hardik Pandya’s helmet menacingly, prompting the medical staff immediately to rush to the middle. He didn’t lose steam during that short interruption and removed experienced Australian batter Mathew Wade leg-before with his unplayable yorker-length delivery.

Such was his impact that SRH went on to end the winning run of the Titans, winning the game by eight wickets. Ever since this victory, Malik has been the centre of debate on all social media platforms for his immense speed and consistency.

One has to understand that this young Kashmiri has very little experience of playing domestic cricket for his state. Malik had only played three first-class matches and one List-A game for the J&K team before his IPL debut.

But he certainly has the guidance of former Indian pacer Irfan Pathan, who is fine-tuning Malik into not just an express bowler but an economical one too. The son of a vegetable vendor, Malik’s action has been regarded as “one of the best” by none other than the Australian pace legend, Brett Lee.

Many commentators and cricketers have compared Malik’s long, steady run-up and smooth, explosive jump to former Pakistan great Waqar Younis. There is a bit of whip action in his back and, along with a strong wrist position, Malik has been able to produce that extra pace in his deliveries.

The former England captain, Michael Vaughan, has already predicted that this Kashmiri boy will soon be playing for Team India. And he has also advised Indian Cricket Board (BCCI) top officials that Malik should be sent to play some county cricket this summer to help him develop his game.

SunRisers Hyderabad fans cheer their cricketing heroes/ Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Confidence, not experience

It is also commendable on the part of SRH that Malik was retained for the ongoing 2022 season without getting enough opportunities to showcase his talent after the last season in the UAE.

This was only possible because of Malik’s ability to bowl at high speeds. Initially, the decision to retain Malik over the likes of David Warner, Jonny Bairstow and Rashid Khan raised a lot of eyebrows. But the way the pacer has started this season, there is no doubt that he has not let his skipper, Kane Williamson, or the SRH management down by any means.

But this could well create a lot of headaches for Indian think-tanks. Having seen the case of Ishant Sharma after that memorable 2007-08 series Down Under, where he made every Australian batsman hop on his speedy rising deliveries, he could hardly justify his talent in the following years as he failed to retain his speed and aggression.

The case of Malik’s mentor, Irfan Pathan, was even stranger. Having got a hat-trick in his initial years against Pakistan in their backyards, Irfan’s bowling only saw a constant dip in pace before being completely sidelined by the Indian selectors. India have rarely seen bowlers who can consistently hit speeds of 150-plus clicks while remaining fit for an extended period.

If Malik was able to do this in the last one year, it is of utmost importance to harness his raw talent. That’s why former India chief coach Ravi Shastri is talking about managing Malik’s workload and taking proper care of him to have his services for a longer duration.

Early life ‘n’ struggle

Malik is a Class 10 dropout. He was spotted by coach Randhir Singh Manhas at the age of 17 after noticing his ability to bowl at 145 kmph while playing at various local tournaments in Kashmir.

Though Malik started playing cricket at an early age, he was practising with tennis balls. It was only at the age of 17 that he first got to hold the hard leather ball in his hands. Going by his own social media account, it was in 2018 when he was part of the U-19 squad that India’s junior selectors saw him bowling in the nets on a cement wicket.

They had come to visit Vaishno Devi temple. They saw me bowling in nets on a cement wicket and asked, “Who are you? You are bowling so fast! Why are you not playing matches?”

The selectors then approached the J&K U-19 coach and advised him to give Malik a game. That became the turning point in his career.

Malik started training hard after this, but after the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, curfew was imposed on the city and that led to a ban on all training camps. The budding pacer was struck by a roadblock and had no way to train in the Valley. He didn’t give up and found ways to train outside the Valley with the help of an association and well-wishers.

His father, Abdul Rashid, a fruit-seller in Shaheedi Chowk, his mother and two older sisters were all supportive of his passion. Soon, he became only the fourth cricketer from the Valley to play in the IPL. As soon as he was given the ball in the UAE, all eyes were focused on the speedometer.

In his only second outing against Royal Challengers Bangalore that Team India skipper Virat Kohli saw this rookie bowl the second-fastest delivery of IPL 2021, a 152.95 kmph-ball. At the post-match presentation, Kohli spoke highly of this new Kashmiri sensation. 

The road ahead

There are enough instances to show that only a few fast bowlers have survived the gruelling demands of the game at the highest level.

And all those who survived had to first learn “the art of channelling their energy”. 

Malik should count himself lucky to be mentored by two of the most experienced pace bowlers of their time — South African great Dale Steyn and Irfan Pathan.

SRH bowling coach Steyn, with all his international experience, could well be the best thing to happen to this 22-year-old pacer. There can be no one better than Steyn to teach “the art of varying pace and hitting the right spots”. 

Another important lesson that Malik needs to learn quickly is about bowling in death overs.

He also needs to learn to survive longer at the highest level amidst the rising expectations of cricket fans. The first and foremost thing that pacers are worried about is their longevity in the game. Very few in the history of cricket have been able to bowl fast and still be able to play for 10-15 years.

If Dennis Lillee or Kapil Dev are fine examples of this particular trade, then Malik should also not forget the case of Aussie sensation Shaun Tait, who recorded the fastest ball in the history of cricket to be bowled, but faded out rather quickly for not addressing his body’s fitness demands!

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