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Vegetable vendor's son Umran Malik brings IPL craze to a town without cricket grounds

Just the fourth cricketer from J&K and the first from his locality to play in the IPL, Umran Malik's growing reputation as one of the fastest Indians of all time has got Gujjar Nagar hooked.

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Umran Malik, who was retained by Sunrisers Hyderabad, is the pride of Jammu's Gujjar Nagar (BCCI)

By

Irshad Hussain

Mubashir Naik

Updated: 2022-03-23T12:26:17+05:30

Till a couple of years ago, Umran Malik's father used to worry his teenaged son was falling into bad habits when he was late in returning home in the evenings. He even tried to secretly follow his son to see where he would go, what sort of company he would keep, but Umran was too fast for him.

Fast forward to 2022 - Umran Malik, part of Sunrisers Hyderabad, is proving to be too fast for the best batters in the world. His father Abdul Rashid Malik, a vegetable vendor who still lays out his wares at the Shaheedi Chowk intersection in Jammu's Gujjar Nagar locality every morning, rarely gets a rest from answering phone calls from well-wishers. Posters of his son saying 'Proud of Umran Malik' have been put up at several spots near the market.

"The love that the people of Jammu and Kashmir are showering on Umran is amazing. His success is the success of the entire state," Umran's father told The Bridge.

"I knew many young boys who were trapped in bad habits at his age, so we used to call him repeatedly in the evenings when his practice got late. But around four years ago, he managed to convince us his heart was completely taken by cricket. All we asked him to do after that was to focus on his game," said the proud father.

Umran, 22, is the fourth player from J&K to play in the IPL. Even when bowling on cement wickets in local club matches some years ago, every side wanted him because of his natural fiery pace.

Making his IPL debut last year, he took that reputation to the biggest stage of them all. Clocking 153 kph, he recorded the fastest delivery by an Indian bowler in the IPL. Following the usual script, he was one of three players retained by SRH - for Rs 4 crore - for IPL 2022. SRH bowling coach Muttiah Muralitharan said Umran, "one of the most talented youngsters in the side", was retained keeping the franchise's future in mind.

"The most frightening moment of my life was when I first bowled to David Warner and Kane Williamson in the SRH nets last year," Umran Malik told The Bridge.

"Jonny Bairstow asked me to bowl slower to him at the nets, but I did not understand what he was saying, so I continued bowling fast," he said.

Umran Malik's father (Bilal Kuchy)

"I have always had this habit of bowling very fast. I used to turn up for cricket trials wherever they were held. In 2018, I got my first breakthrough when I was selected in the trials to get into the U19 J&K team. The selectors noticed that I was wearing joggers, not spikes like the others," he remembered with a chuckle.

Soon after, with word of his natural pace spreading fast, one of Umran's best friends gave him a pair of spikes.

"I then set my foot in the U19 and U23 teams for J&K. It was another milestone when I was selected for the senior team for the Vijay Hazare Trophy and Ranji Trophy," Umran recollected.

But even back then, his sights were set on bigger goals. Around the time he made his debut for the U19 J&K team, he changed his Instagram bio. "India soon," it was updated to say. Having already played for India A and served as a net bowler for the Indian team, that promise from four years ago has seemed less and less absurd with every firebolt he has delivered at the stumps.

Local hero brings cricket wave in undeveloped area

For a youngster from Jammu's Gujjar Nagar, cricket dreams were easy to sow but hard to pursue. For one thing, the town still has no cricket ground. Or even a playground. Umran's training ground was thus the cemented streets of his locality. When the ball zipped off the surface to smash the street batter's makeshift stumps, it was clear that Umran was the fastest bowler of the area. But how exactly his pace compared to the world's fastest was something lost to coaches, players and admirers alike because of unavailability of technology.

Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association (JCCA) video analyst Sameer Ahmed said it was clear to all that Umran's natural lethal pace was a unique talent, but the management could not recognise how special the talent was because no speedometers were available.

"Jammu and Kashmir can produce sensational cricketing talents but lack of infrastructure ends many of these dreams. In the whole of Jammu, there is one cricket stadium, that too has been under construction for a long time. Kashmir also has just one," he said.

"Our state can produce many such talents who are good enough to play for India once result-oriented sports infrastructure is developed here," he added.

Locals play on a cement pitch in Gujjar Nagar (Bilal Kuchy)

While infrastructure may still be some way off, local hero Umran Malik has inspired a new wave of interest in cricket.

The few local cricket academies in Jammu have seen a massive spurt in enrolments since last year.

Shakeeb Ali, a 25-year-old cricketer from Gujjar Nagar, said cricket is suddenly the new buzzword here.

"Parents are taking their sons to clubs, thinking if Umran can do it, so can someone from their families. Many tournaments are being organised at the local level by enthusiastic youths. Umran's entry in the IPL has already done what we had not been able to do for years," he said.

Umran is already an idol for even more established cricketers from the area.

Srinagar-based 6'2'' pacer Sheikh Shariq, 24, proudly recalled that he has trained with Umran. "I shared my training camp with the Umran in Jammu during domestic trials. After his IPL debut, he has become an inspiration for all," he said.

Could Umran Malik become the fastest of all time?

The man at the centre of the attention is quick to credit Irfan Pathan for his rapid rise. Pathan was appointed as mentor-cum-coach of Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA) in 2018, instantly becoming someone to look up to for all local cricketers.

"Irfan Pathan shared some technical tips which helped a lot. He helped me make slight changes in my bowling action and run-up," Umran Malik said.

His family members, however, say his untiring hard work is what has taken him to this level.

"If Umran bowls fast today, it is because he identified that as his special skill and he worked tirelessly to bowl as fast as humanly possible since then. He was always very serious about having a balanced diet. He gave up sweets and junk food a long time ago to achieve his dream," a family member told The Bridge.

Could Umran Malik become the fastest Indian bowler of all time? There have been a handful of Indian pacers who have clocked 150kph+ speeds - Javagal Srinath, Jasprit Bumrah, Irfan Pathan, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Navdeep Saini, Varun Aaron, Umesh Yadav - apart from Umran. But what makes his pace stand out is the ease with which he maintains a speed of around 150kph in every delivery.

When SRH begin their IPL 2022 campaign next Tuesday, Umran Malik's pace will be one of the things the world will be watching out for. As for Gujjar Nagar, all eyes will be fixed on the television screen, and the speed reading appearing at the bottom of the screen after every delivery.

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