IPL 2022: Umran Malik: manic, magic, madness

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Never mind which IPL team you support, or even if you don’t support IPL at all. What cannot be missed in IPL 2022 is the heart-pounding, visceral feast that is Umran Malik versus Anyone. In the week gone by, Malik’s blinding pace has hit Hardik Pandya on the helmet, scrambled Shreyas Iyer’s footwork, splattered his stumps and set Andre Russell on his derriere. Oh, and on Sunday he bowled the 20th over without conceding a run, took three wickets in four balls, on the verge of a hat-trick. After the match versus Punjab Kings, Malik had recorded the five fastest deliveries bowled this season – (in kph) 152.6, 149.5, 149.2, 149.1, 148.5. 

The number crunchers on TV also put up a graphic showing the five fastest average speeds this season (minimum 50 balls bowled). Malik topped at 145.6kph, followed by Lockie Ferguson’s 139.5, Dushmanta Chameera 137.8, Mohammed Shami 137.4 and Jasprit Bumrah 136.5. Weighty as they are, those are just numbers, skeletal, important but bare. The meat lies in the contest.   

Malik has gone from wildly wayward in his first four matches this season – three wickets for 146 runs in 14 overs – before finding his radar versus KKR. His exchange with Shreyas Iyer became one of those passages of play that detaches itself from the scorecard, renders everyone else invisible and turns into cricket’s most primal contest, naked even when in its shiniest new clothes. Bat versus ball… correction, bat versus very, very fast ball versus muscle memory versus reflex versus instinct. 

Stormy encounter

Iyer vs Malik lasted merely nine balls, but it was eyeball-grabbing, throat-clenching, stomach-kicking, bum-on-seat-putting stuff, where not a ball was to be missed. Malik bowled back of a length, hurried Iyer, who was beaten twice on the edge for pace. One ball jags in, inside edges onto his thigh and falls short of a vacant short leg. We are past the powerplay, Iyer is KKR captain, an accomplished international, but Malik’s pace pushes him to rookie-scale. The runs trickle, two twos and a single from dabs to point and third man. Iyer tries to make room, free his arms, target the square areas, deliver a resounding blow to the bully’s ego. But before he can reach it, the short ball zips past him, into the keeper’s gloves. Iyer is where batsmen say they end up when the ball goes from past 140kph (the ‘wake up, buster’ zone) and into 145kph-plus (ear-whistling, death-rattle-due zone).   

Where, as I was told, “you feel irrespective of what you do, you can be beaten by it.” Where the mind is trying to clear itself quickly because, “you are rushed, you don’t feel in absolute control.” This is how some of the game’s greats describe where Iyer found himself. Not only is he not in control, this is T20, there is no time to take a breath. There is no question of ducking, weaving, parrying, leaving. Every ball is an event where an emphatic reaction is demanded. Bowlers say with glee that as speeds rise, batsmen morph into lesser versions of themselves. “You see a different batsman when the ball crosses 140, and an even more different batsman when it goes past 145.”   

Past 145, yet another nano second is trimmed off their internal response time. Which then upsets the smooth but internally complicated biomechanics that run through a cricket stroke – body weight, core torque, feet movement, power of the arms on ascent and descent. The ball in the meantime is doing its own thing. Which in the case of Iyer was heading straight for the stumps he had left exposed, anticipating another short one. He was left inelegantly trying to carve a stroke out of thin air because by then the ball had already hit the base of the stumps, the zing bails were already in the air and he was already out.   

It doesn’t really matter whether Iyer was creating room, staying beside the line of the ball as you must in T20s, or backing to leg. What we saw sent a lightning signal through KKR’s opposition and around the world. A bowler’s droll response was, “It’s the pace which is pushing you to make room.” Because other than being beside the line, you don’t want to be behind it. Not at that speed. Not in this match or the next. It is where and why impulse trumps even finely-trained reflex. Malik’s pace made that happen and it’s the reason we are beside ourselves because he belongs go an uber rare tribe – the expressman whose average ball is 145kph. Let alone corridors, that sets up the entire landscape of Uncertainty Country.   

At that speed, everything is more urgent: the ball doesn’t follow batsmen, it stalks them. Feet freeze, backlifts drop. On commentary, Irfan Pathan, who drew Malik into his nets as Jammu & Kashmir mentor-pro in 2018, said that after the KKR match, Andre Russell asked Malik, “Are you about to kill me, maan? What are you doing?” Over the course of IPL 22, Malik has gained control, adjusted length and sensed correctly what to bowl when. Is he then the fastest Indian there ever was? Well, not yet. In the Standard Bank tri-series between India, South Africa and Zimbabwe (January-February 1997), Javagal Srinath recorded the fastest ball bowled by an Indian at 157kph, ahead of Allan Donald and Lance Klusener, who were around 153-154. Through chats and conversations, a list of Indian expressmen came through – in the 1990s Srinath (pre-shoulder surgery), Salil Ankola, David Johnson, Prashant Vaidya, and in the 2000s, Munaf Patel, Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron. 

Right, there are varying developments, injuries and career paths but the one thing that their stories still teach Indian cricket is this – never compromise on speed. Particularly speed of this range and texture. “Accuracy can be taught, not speed… if you work on fitness maximum you can up your speed by 5kph, but to be able to bowl this, 145 average, touching 150kph… this is a gift, this has to be nurtured.” It is a gift Sunrisers saw and gobbled up, retaining Malik, uncapped for 4 crore, after he played only three matches last season. He is in a work environment today that every 90s express pacer in India would have wept for – fitness trainers, strength & conditioning experts, generous seniors and quality support staff.   

He will meet his match one of these nights in IPL but there is no predicting what will shape his future. Not just in T20 but in longer formats, particularly in international cricket. Where Malik’s pace gives him a head start over others. As for variations and game nous, there are plenty of teachers around. 

But first, Sunrisers’ next match is on Saturday, April 23, versus Royal Challengers Bangalore. That’s Umran vs Faf, Virat, DK and Maxwell. Yum.



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