It’s not even been a year since Umran Malik made his Indian Premier League debut for Sunrisers Hyderabad. It was a debut that stemmed out of the Sunrisers’ desperation to test every weapon in their arsenal, in the hope that there must be some buoyant force that can steady heir listing ship.

Umran Malik didn’t exactly change their fortunes, but in the limited opportunities he got, the youngster showed something that may very well change the fortune of Indian cricket. His bowling was a rare bright spot that made even the most boring team a little more watchable.

Fast forward to 2022. Malik is on the verge of making his India debut, after being selected in the 18-member squad for the T20I series against South Africa. So far, the only thing that seems faster than his bowling is his brisk rise to the top. Perhaps no cricketers in recent times have generated such excitement and hype, let alone a fast bowler which has always been an extinct species in this over-resourced country. 

The Unbridled Joy Of Watching Umran In His Raw Stage

What explains this madness? Biomechanics says the fluent action makes him a horse for a long ride, without putting too much stress on the body. Analytics tells you his 22 wickets in his IPL 2022, while human interest stories will trace his hype to his humble upbringing and the fact that he comes from a conflicted state where opportunities are very few. 

All of these are valid answers. But sometimes the well-worn-out cliches “Pace is Pace, Yaar” – make more sense. This very much sums up the madness and fanfare surrounding Umran Malik. 

Despite some proven caveats, cricket is terribly obsessed with speed. Propelling a leather ball at an upper limit of a speed gun is the most compelling, most exciting hook for new bowlers. Line and length and other matters of significance can wait. It can be learned with time. But Speed? No. Either you have or you haven’t. 

In all of the 14 games he played this season, Umran Malik bowled the fastest delivery of the match. Still in his early days, there are many rough edges to his craft, but that hasn’t deterred anyone from turning their back on him. Instead, that rawness has instead added another terrifying, unpredictable dimension to his bowling. 

The runs and wickets are the basic units of the game. In the end, the wickets column tells you everything about bowlers. The speed chart is a transience property that springs up in the corner of the screen after every delivery, and then are lost into oblivion. To paraphrase Charles Baudelaire: Speed is transient, fleeting, contingent. Yet nothing fascinates the viewers as the thunderous pace. The abiding memory of every match that Sunrisers Hyderabad played has been Malik’s bowling.

In the words of Shoaib Akhtar, “You have to be mad to be a fast bowler”. Umran Malik very much embodies that madness. How else do you explain the very act of putting copious strain on every sinew of the muscle when there are perhaps ten thousand easier ways to achieve the desired result? It is a gruelling task. Not even the most rewarding, yet every once in a while comes the bowler who thinks they can change the world, end the wretchedness, eradicate the sufferings, simply by slingshotting a leather orb at lightning-quick speed. They are a bunch of mad species.

From A Tennis-Ball Cricketer To India’s Most Exciting Pacer

Born to Abdul Rashid and Seema Begum, Umran Malik comes from a family of modest means. His father sold fruits and vegetables in Gujjar Nagar, a small town in Jammu. While Umran’s father had his doubts about his son’s cricket dreams, Malik always had unconditional support from his sisters. Umran, like most kids harboring a dream to represent India, started his journey with tennis balls. There was no academy in his vicinity for formal training, and relocating to a different city just to play cricket was way beyond his means.

So his journey continued with a tennis ball. He was quite famous in his town, where he used to play local tournaments. Only after he turned 17, did he venture into leather-ball cricket, upon the advice of Randheer Singh Manhas (Rajan Sir). 

“In his early days he was not serious about playing professional cricket with a hard ball. He used to skip his hard ball practice to play tennis cricket but his coach Mr Randheer Singh Manhas (Rajan Sir) advised him one day and told him that you’re going to be a big name in cricket if you just focus on hard ball cricket. You will get adjusted to it if you take this game seriously,” said Abdul Rasheed to Deccan Chronicle.

Even for a tennis ball cricket, Umran was a clear outlier in terms of pace. 

“Umran was quick when he came to meet Rajan sir (Randhir Singh Manhas) at the Maulana Azad Stadium in Jammu’s Nawabad in 2017,” said Ram Dayal, the senior J&K medium pacer, to New Indian Express. 

Irfan Pathan, the former Indian cricketer, noticed Umran during his stint as a head coach of Jammu & Kashmir. “When Irfan Pathan came as a mentor for J&K, he gave him some important tips. He made his action look better and after that he became more serious. When Abdul Samad joined the IPL team he got many useful tips from him also, so it’s all in front of you what he is doing today,” recalls Abdul Rashid.

https://twitter.com/IrfanPathan/status/1528680361865412608

Pathan’s coaching made him even better, and he was soon drafted by Sunrisers Hyderabad as a net bowler in 2020. Next year, Sunrisers Hyderabad, after being knocked out of the tournament, gave Malik an opportunity. In his first match, Umran Malik became the fastest Indian bowler in the tournament. 

The Worrying Pattern Of Indian Fast Bowlers’ Career Arc

This is not the first time Indian cricket has been blessed with such fast bowlers. Ishant Sharma crossed the 150kph barrier in his debut series, against Australia. But five years into his international career, Sharma was hardly able to clock even 140kph. By the time he came to the dusk of his career, he transformed into a medium pacer, bowling in mid 130s. 

Similarly, Munaf Patel was more than capable of constantly clocking 90mph in his early days. He was touted as the first genuine pacer of Indian cricketer, but his career too fizzled out after initial promises. He suffered a spate of injuries, and was also mishandled by team management, who chose him for England series even though he was not fully fit.

Varun Aaron’s career too followed a similar arc. He caught attention after bowling in excess of 150 in the final of the 2011 Vijay Hazare Trophy. He was soon drafted to the Indian team, but a series of untimely injuries deterred his progress. 

Too many Indian fast bowlers have lost their careers to injury, burnout, and mismanagement by the board. Many even reduced their pace to be more effective, but it proved counterproductive. Shaun Tait, arguably the fastest bowler of our times, once reasoned that the increasing professionalism has also led to a decline in proper fast bowlers. “Sometimes I think we should let cricketers make their decisions themselves rather than telling them what to do and spoon-feeding them,” said Tait.

“I can talk about this for an hour… I think anywhere you go right now; bowling programs are very similar, workload, programs, you have to do this, you have to do that. Whereas when I played, before that Shoaib and Brett Lee, our programs were there, but we had a big input into them,” Tait told Sportskeeda.

“We were not faced with almost like a robot-type thing. You are not doing the same thing, day in, day out. You are not being told by people what to do all the time. You are taking a bit of onus on your career and doing what feels good for your body.”

Brett Lee too advised Umran Malik to not compromise on the pace: “My advice to Umran right now is to just run in and bowl as fast as you can. Yes, the action is perfect, I wouldn’t change it. I think he has got some more speed up his sleeve. One thing you cannot take away from this young fellow is his raw pace.”

Thus the first thing Indian cricket needs to be careful about is not suggesting Umran Malik reduce his pace. Rather they should strive to build his game around that sizzling pace. There’s no dearth of swing or seam bowlers, now they need someone who can roughen up the batsman with his ferocity. Secondly, Indian cricket should avoid overusing him. There’s also a lesson to be learned from England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB), which is going through a terrible fast bowling crisis. 

Featured Image Credit: @BCCI