As he ran in to bowl for the first time in the Indian Premier League (IPL), an excited Mpumelelo Mbangwa shouted “Where has he been?” more than once from the commentary box. Umran Malik was almost unheard of before this. The youngster had played just one domestic match before his surprise appearance in the IPL in 2021.
But on 5 May 2022, the 22-year-old from the Gujjar Nagar area of Jammu and Kashmir bowled the second-fastest delivery in the 15-year history of the IPL, clocking 157kph against the Delhi Capitals. He broke his own record to become the fastest Indian bowler in the tournament – and the cricket world took notice.
So where was he before 2021? There is barely any infrastructure for sport in marginalised Jammu and Kashmir. Most of the sportspeople in the region grow up playing on streets or uneven grounds.
“Umran started his career playing local cricket with a Cosco ball at the Tawi ground. At that time, some good night tennis-ball cricket tournaments were being conducted across Jammu. So, he used to bowl really quick even back then,” said Raman Thaploo, a close friend of Malik.
Abdul Rashid Malik supported his family as best he could. “My father runs a vegetable and fruit shop, so he used to go to the shop at 5am in morning and return back at 12am at night. He worked all day and rarely slept. Seeing him do this much for the family drove me towards doing something big,” said Malik, who has two sisters.
Malik still hadn’t played with a leather cricket ball by 2017. He had no idea about professional cricket either. “After impressing everyone with tennis-ball cricket, Umran’s teammates kind of forced him to play leather-ball cricket. Once he played a few matches, he was prompted to go to a coach. But he wasn’t regular, he would rarely show up at the stadium,” said Thaploo, who is also a cricketer.
But it was Abdul Samad, another Jammu and Kashmir cricketer, who changed Malik’s life. He made him take the game more seriously, which helped him secure a spot in the state’s Under-19 team. “Samad told him, ‘You have the talent to make it big.’ He also helped him join NCC, a club affiliated with the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association, where he made an impression with his pace. Thereon, he attended state Under-19 trials,” said Thaploo.
“He didn’t have the spike shoes to bowl in trials, but the selectors somehow allowed him to bowl. He had just bowled a few balls and the selectors noticed that he was making it hard for experienced batsmen to even touch the ball. So they picked him for the team.”
One of the questions that keep coming up when discussing Malik is, where does his pace come from? “Let me be very honest, it’s totally a natural thing with him. He never did any extraordinary training initially or learned it from anyone,” said Thaploo.
After making it into the Under-19 team, Malik rarely made the playing XI. The lack of chances and support confused him about how to make it through. But thanks to Samad, he ended up in the nets of IPL franchise Sunrisers Hyderabad. Samad sent his bowling videos to the team’s coaching staff, who signed him as a net bowler for the 2020 edition of the IPL.
Beating the odds
Malik spent his first season troubling the franchise’s batters with express pace in the nets. It helped him bag the net bowling contract for the 2021 season. He might have thought it would take him some years to make it into the main squad and play in the tournament, but he was in for a surprise.
As Covid-19 cases rose in India, one of Hyderabad’s bowlers tested positive and they brought Malik in as a short-term replacement. Three matches after being named for the main squad, Malik made his debut on 3 October 2021 against the Kolkata Knight Riders. He clocked 150kph in his very first over, making everyone ask, “Who is this guy?”
Pace is rare on the slow pitches of India. They favour spinners, which is what has made Malik’s rise even more remarkable. In his second match of the 2021 tournament, he became the fastest Indian bowler in the IPL’s history after bowling a delivery at 152.95kph. He was soon sent alongside the Indian squad as their net bowler for the 2021 Twenty20 World Cup.
For his impressive debut in the tournament, Sunrisers Hyderabad retained Malik for the 2022 IPL for Indian crore 4 (just over R8 million). The huge contract only got better once the franchise signed Dale Steyn, one of the all-time best fast bowlers, as their bowling coach.
“He teaches us a lot. It’s so good for us to have a legend like him in our dugout. If his plans work out, he feels very happy,” Malik said about Steyn.
Next up, the senior team
When Malik rattled the stumps of Shreyas Iyer with a yorker on 15 April, Steyn was seen jumping off his seat to celebrate the youngster’s wicket. He has been all praise for him since. The right-arm pacer took 15 wickets at a strike rate of 15.20 in his first 10 matches.
“Umran is fantastic. His performance is no reflection on me at all, it’s all him at the moment. He has got amazing skills, he is showing everybody, bowling 150kph. I am kind of living through him, wishing I could do it. But it’s all him at the moment. He is certainly somebody whom we should keep an eye on for the future,” Steyn said while speaking to broadcasters.
Steyn also predicted that the youngster could soon be playing for the Indian national team.
“I am sure he will play for India soon. How he will be managed will be entirely up to Indian cricket. I think they should bring him to the senior team as soon as possible because what he offers is brilliant,” he said.
“Right now we are all excited about Umran’s talent and what he has shown. Everyone is on the edge of their seats when he bowls. It’s exciting, not just for Indian cricket but also for world cricket. Very rarely do you get guys like that who bowl so fast and that consistently, too.”