Meet India's fastest bowler, Umran Malik
The Jammu and Kashmir bowler hadn't played with a cricket ball until he was 17. Now he's in the IPL, and bowling in the nets for India at the T20 World Cup
"India soon," Umran Malik wrote in his Instagram bio in 2018. He was 18, part of the Jammu & Kashmir Under-19 squad, and had started playing leather-ball cricket just a year before. He was still to get a game in the Cooch Behar Trophy, but his bowling in a practice session left India's U-19 selectors stunned.
"They had come to visit Vaishno Devi Mandir," Malik says. "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 approached a J&K U-19 coach and advised him to give Malik a game. It was the first time Malik realised that he could make it big.
Last month Malik, now 21, became only the fourth cricketer from J&K to play in the IPL. As soon as he ran in to bowl in his opening game, for Sunrisers Hyderabad, the speedometer came into focus. He touched 150kph several times in his spell. In his second match, he bowled the fastest delivery by an Indian in the tournament's history - 152.95kph.
Hailing from a family of modest means in Jammu's Gujjar Nagar, Malik began playing at a young age. His father, Abdul Rashid, a fruit-seller in Shaheedi Chowk, his mother and two older sisters, were all supportive of his passion.
"After playing in school during the day, he would leave the bag at home and go to play cricket in the evening as well," says Rashid. "I used to tell him, 'Play cricket but pay some attention to studies as well.' I never refused to buy equipment or other things for him."
Malik's long, steady run-up and smooth, explosive jump had commentators and fans liken his action to that of Waqar Younis. "I used to bowl fast from the very beginning," he says. "I had a natural action. I didn't copy it from anyone."
At 17 he ventured beyond gully cricket, into competitive tennis-ball tournaments around Jammu. The matches usually took place in the evenings and drew big crowds. Batters relished these games - ten overs an innings, short boundaries - but Malik's pace often stole the spotlight.
"Every team wanted him in their side," says Raman Thaploo, a J&K cricketer who has watched Malik's cricket journey closely.
His growing popularity in tennis-ball cricket made him give leather-ball cricket a try. In his very first local match with a cricket ball, in 2017, he hit some huge sixes and bowled a fiery spell.
As his reputation spread, he acquired the nickname "Ghajini". Like Aamir Khan's character in the hit Bollywood film of that name, he had close-cropped hair and a strong physique. Thaploo remembers: "People used to say, 'Ghajini bade chhakke marta hai, Ghajini bowling badi tez karta hai [Ghajini hits huge sixes and bowls very fast]."
Soon Malik's friends suggested he go to a coach to improve his skills. He made his way to MA Stadium, where Randhir Singh Manhas, a local coach, trained young cricketers. "I remember it was the morning session, and as usual, I didn't have many bowlers," Manhas recalls of Malik's first time there. "When he came to me, I said, 'Okay, you can bowl.'"
He had just bowled a couple of balls when Ram Dayal, a senior J&K cricketer, walked in. He stopped at the nets and watched for a while. "He [Dayal] asked, 'Who's this guy? He has raw talent and bowls around 135 to 140kph,'" Manhas says.
Manhas asked his new pupil to come to the stadium daily. While much about Malik was in place, Manhas worked on a couple of things. "He was a natural talent. Usually players with Cosco [tennis-ball] background are quick through the air.
"However, his jump and landing weren't that perfect, so I worked with him on it. Later, when Irfan Pathan came here [as J&K mentor], he too helped him a bit."
Another player who practised at that ground was Abdul Samad, younger than Malik but a more seasoned cricketer, who would go on to play for J&K and Sunrisers Hyderabad before Malik. The two began training together every day. "I knew Samad earlier but we became best friends in 2018," says Malik. "We're now more like brothers."
Malik's career was still not quite on track. When he went for the J&K U-19 trials, he was in for a surprise. "I was told that I haven't played at district level, so I can't appear in the trials."
Still, he decided to show up again the next day. "I went to nets and as they didn't know whether I had played district or not, I started bowling. I just bowled one ball and the selector came to me and said, 'You will be in the team, don't worry. Just keep yourself ready.'"
"He played his first match here at Jammu," Thaploo remembers. "When he bowled the very first ball, it went above the keeper's head after bouncing. Umpires were stunned. They asked him if he had played any nationals before."
The following year, Malik was rejected at the U-23 trials. In February 2020, Samad, now a part of J&K Ranji Trophy team, met the J&K U-23 team coach to plead Malik's case. It was Samad, too, after being picked by Sunrisers Hyderabad for the 2020 IPL, who suggested Malik's name to the franchise as a net bowler. "I told Samad to send my videos to them," says Malik.
Soon Malik was in the Sunrisers camp, surprising elite batters with his pace. On one occasion Kedar Jadhav asked him whether he was in the team or a net bowler. On another, Thaploo recalls proudly: "He was bowling very fast to Jonny Bairstow in the nets, and he told him to bowl a bit slow. However, as Malik doesn't understand English much, he continued bowling fast. Then someone from the SRH camp came to him and said, 'He is asking you to bowl a bit slow, you're bowling too fast!'"
Malik's impressive show as net bowler in the 2020 IPL prompted the franchise to continue with him in 2021. In September this year, during the second leg of the competition, he received a call from the state cricket association, asking him to report back to Jammu for Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy trials. Instead he found himself included in the Sunrisers team as a short-term replacement for T Natarajan, who had tested positive for Covid-19 in Dubai.
"Alhamdulillah, I was included in the team, else I had to travel back the next day," says Malik. "It was an amazing feeling."
Once Sunrisers had lost the race to the playoffs, they provided Malik an opportunity in the playing XI, against Kolkata Knight Riders. He had just bowled three balls when the cricketing world started asking: who is this guy?
Malik clocked 150kph in his very first over, and a couple more times in the game. He was, until then, unaware of the speeds he bowled at.
"I thought I could bowl around 140-145kph max. I hadn't checked my pace before playing in IPL," he says. "Making my debut in the IPL and performing well in the first match was the most special moment of my life."
In the next game, against Royal Challengers Bangalore, Malik went a step further by bowling the second-fastest delivery of IPL 2021 - the 152.95kph-ball. At the post-match presentation, Virat Kohli spoke in support of the youngster: "Whenever you see talent like this, you are going to have your eyes on them and make sure you maximise their potential."
"I really felt proud on seeing such a big player talking about me," says Malik. "Nobody knew me a day before and now the world was talking about me."
Back home, Abdul Rashid's phone didn't stop ringing after his son's IPL debut. From journalists turning up at his house and shop to relatives paying congratulatory visits, it was a busy week for him and his family.
"Not only my family but whole Jammu-Kashmir and India is happy after seeing his bowling," says Rashid emotionally. "His hard work has paid off."
On the basis of his IPL outing, Malik was included in the Indian contingent as a net bowler for the T20 World Cup. While pace is his major weapon, he can also generate swing into right-hand batters, and likes the bouncer. He is working to improve his skills, and is focusing on his yorker.
"My first dream would be to see our team lifting the World Cup," he says. "I will try to bowl well in the nets and impress selectors, so that they pick me for any of the future series, Inshallah."
That "India soon" bio could become reality sooner than expected.
Mohsin Kamal is a journalist and cricket enthusiast