The sight of a fast bowler running in to bowl at a batsman is one of the most enchanting sights in cricket. A long run up intended to provide the required momentum to the delivery stride, that ends in release of the ball at a velocity in excess of 90 miles per hour never fails to create a wave of excitement in all those watching the game. The leap at the end of the delivery stride, after which the weight is transferred to the leading foot immediately prior to the ball leaving the hand ensures that the entire energy generated by the bowler is transferred to the ball. The followthrough after the delivery, like the run up, comprises precise steps intended to take the body away from the pitch so as not to damage the “danger area”. The entire series of movements a top class fast bowler from the start of the run up of till the completion of followthrough can be compared with that of a qualified dancer for the rhythm, complete co-ordination of body and mind and the intense focus and concentration that both professions demand.
As a person who started following cricket from the early 1970s I must confess that followers of the game of my generation were denied this splendid sight till almost the close of that decade. Till Kapil Dev burst on the international arena towards the end of 1978, India could not boast of a single bowler who could claim to hurl the red cherry at speeds that would make the batsman wear a helmet or be forced into taking an evasive action to avoid being struck by the ball. This was a matter of great shame and other national sides used to look down upon us on this score. Opposing sides did not have to think twice before seeking hard fast wickets when the Indian side toured these countries. We had reconciled to this fact of life and kept on trotting out various excuses to cover up for this inadequacy. ‘Spin is our forte’, ‘our weather conditions are not suited for fast bowlers’ and ‘fast bowlers cannot be brought up on our diet and food habits’ were some of the more frequently used ones in this regard.
This was a surprising development as it was the Indian fast bowling duo of Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh who made the biggest impression when India made their entry to the rarefied world of Test cricket in 1932. Both of them were fast and could move the ball both ways. England batsmen who faced Nissar considered him to be as quick as Harold Larwood who terrorised Australian batsmen with his “bodyline” bowling, while Walter Hammond described Amar Singh’s deliveries coming off the wicket as “crack of doom”. Unfortunately Amar Singh died of pneumonia in 1940 while Nissar chose to migrate to Pakistan after the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Hence the services of both the players were restricted to the pr-Independence era.
By some strange quirk of fate, fast bowlers dried up in India after 1947. During the late 1940s and 1950s, Dattu Phadkar used to open the Indian bowling. Though Phadkar was a useful all-rounder with two centuries and 62 wickets to his credit in Test cricket, he sent down deliveries at a “military medium pace”, which did not invoke fear in the batsmen. Phadkar was followed by Ramakant Desai, nicknamed “Tiny”, on account of his short stature. Desai possessed a wicked bouncer and manfully bore the brunt of being the only new ball bowler in the side for most part of the 1960s. After Desai came Abid Ali, Madan Lal and Karsan Ghavri, all useful performers with the ball, but they could not generate the pace to be classified as fast bowlers.
It was only with the advent of Kapil that India could finally have in their ranks a fast bowler who made batman call for their helmets, as Sadiq Mohamed did in the first Test of the series against Pakistan at Faisalabad in 1978. Kapil himself cut down on his pace and focused more on control and movement once he realised the quantum of workload he had to bear and understood the need to preserve himself. Javagal Srinath followed in Kapil’s footsteps and he formed aN effective fast bowling pair, first with Venkatesh Prasad and later with Zaheer Khan. Though Srinath was dubbed as the “fastest vegetarian bowler in the world” when he started out, he improved his pace considerably during the years that followed and became a genuine match-winner.
However, despite these strides in the art of bowling fast, Indian pacers lacked the aggression that was a trademark of their counterparts abroad. There were no scathing glares nor intimidating body language.Even appeals seldom reached the levels of blood curling battle cries; mostly they fell more under the category of ‘dignified’ requests. A cricket correspondent once observed that appeal of Srinath resembled more a plea before a divine power than a justifiable demand made of an official! The body language and demeanour of our fast bowlers suggested that they were almost apologetic about being in this wrong profession! Instead of strutting their wares and instilling fear in the minds of opposing batsmen, our pacers seemed content to let the ball do the entire talking as their lips seldom moved! In short, Indian fast bowlers of this generation bowled very well but did not strive to make their art popular and “glamorous”.
India owes to the much maligned S Sreesanth for transforming this mindset of our fast bowlers. He showed for the first time ever that the Indian fast bowlers could also glare at opposing batsmen, bowl bouncers at tailenders and ‘give the lip’ liberally. This, in turn spawned a new generation of fast bowlers such as Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj, to name a few, who have taken the international arena by storm through their exploits with the ball. All of them are capable of sending the balls at speeds above 140 kilometres per hour on a regular basis and a few occasionally hit the 150-mark as well. They have tons of self confidence and are not scared to look their opponents in their eye, with the result that they command immense respect. Opposing sides think twice these days before seeking hard bouncy tracks as the message has gone across clearly that the Indian bowlers will relish those conditions more then the hosts.
The emergence of Umran Malik, the new fast bowling sensation, is required to be seen against this backdrop. Malik hails from Jammu, a region not known to produce cricketers, let alone fast bowlers. But his USP is not his place of origin but his ability to bowl fast and that too with an aggression that is rarely seen among Indian pacemen. Malik has shown during this edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) that he can clock speeds exceeding 150 kilometres per hour consistently, which places him on a higher pedestal than other fast bowlers. Further, he enjoys making the batsmen duck and weave out of the way of his bouncers and does not hide his glee when the ball strikes the helmet. The fact that he has a scorching yorker in his repertoire to follow up his bouncers makes him an even more potent force. Twenty-two wickets in 14 matches in his second season of IPL, with one five-wicket haul, at an average of 20.18 and strike rate of 13.40 stands a testimony to his wicket-taking abilities. Hence no eyebrows were raised when the selectors named him in the squad to host South Africa in a five-match T20I series starting June 9.
At this juncture a word of praise needs to be paid to the system in place in our country for unearthing this rare gem from Jammu. It is on record that Malik first played with a leather ball only five years ago. But his talent was spotted by Randhir Singh Manhas, a local coach and Ram Dayal, a former Jammu and Kashmir Ranji Trophy player. They nurtured Malik and helped him climb the rungs to the state junior side where he met Abdul Samad, an all-rounder who was later picked to play for Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) in the IPL. It was based on Samad’s recommendation that Malik entered the camp of SRH during the IPL 2020 as a net bowler, where he stunned everyone by the pace he was able to generate. This was a lucky break for Malik in one more way as he came under the tutelage of Dale Steyn, the South African great, who was bowling coach of SRH. When Thirumalai Natarajan was forced to withdraw from IPL 2021 due to COVID-19 infection, Malik got his chance to turn out for the side. He straightaway made everyone sit up and take notice by clocking speed in excess of 150 kilometres per hour in his very first over and several times later in that game. Virat Kohli, then leading India, was impressed by this performance and inducted him as a net bowler for the national side prior to the T20 World Cup. And after his first full season in IPL, Malik has become a part of the Indian team.
One can state with confidence that Malik will touch speeds closer to 160 kilometres per hour in the next couple of years once he settles down in international arena and bowls on more helpful pitches. This will take India to the pole position as the nation with the fastest bowler in the world, a seemingly unthinkable event for those, like this author, who were led to believe that we could not produce fast bowlers! Cricket lovers of the present generation will not have to face the taunts about a nation of one billion plus population not having top quality fast bowlers in its ranks.
Let us wish Malik all good luck and success for a long, productive and rewarding career in international cricket and hope that he inspires a new generation of speedsters to rise from within the country.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)