Umran Malik redefining the art of bowling fast in India

Umran Malik is making the batsmen hop. “He will make them run,” asserts Sanjeev Sharma, his coach at Jammu and Kashmir. “He is a work in progress and will make a huge impact on the game. He is making heads turn with his pace and he is a rare treasure. We need to handle him with care,” Sanjeev, a former India speedster, cautions.

The young fast bowler from Jammu has consistently clocked around 150kmph in this Indian Premier League season, troubling batters and impressing the connoisseurs of the game.

He is part of a pack that is redefining the art of bowling fast in a land that has mostly favoured and depended on the artsy turners of the cricket ball.

However, Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh – worthy claimants to the fast bowlers’ category – caused discomfort to English batters in India’s Test debut in 1932. Nissar and Amar, since then, had remained fond memories of a rich past.

For years, India struggled to put together a decent pair of new-ball bowlers. Spin was the preferred weapon.

India had the odd cricketer who could use the new ball, but lack of consistency was the bane. The debut of Ramakant Desai against the West Indies in 1959 gave independent India its first fast bowler of international repute. Desai was quick and could rattle the batters with his deceptive pace off the pitch. Pakistan great Hanif Mohammad rated him high.

The mantle was passed on to medium-pacers Abid Ali and Subroto Guha in the late 60s, but it was also the phase when Eknath Solkar shared the new ball. He was not quick by international standards, and it took the arrival of Madan Lal and Karsan Ghavri to finally offer India a semblance of threat with the new ball. The emergence of Kapil Dev in the late 70s provided the Indian pace attack with an edge.

“No one bowls fast in India,” Kapil was told by an administrator at a camp in Bombay when the young all-rounder demanded extra diet. Stung by the insensitive remark, Kapil triggered a revolution by bowling quick. “It was great to see openers bat with helmets when facing Indian quicks,” Sunil Gavaskar had observed then. On the 1978 tour to Pakistan, opener Sadiq Mohammad had to summon the helmet in the opening Test following an impressive spell by Kapil. That was a landmark moment in Indian cricket.

There was a flurry of new new-ball bowlers – essentially seamers – as Kapil found support in partners like Ghavri, Madan Lal, Roger Binny and Yograj Singh for some time before Tamil Nadu’s T. A. Sekar entered the fray. Raju Kulkarni, Chetan Sharma and Prashant Vaidya followed the lot, increasing the competition among seamers. The supply line continued with Sanjeev Sharma, Manoj Prabhakar, Atul Wassan, Rashid Patel, Vivek Razdan, Salil Ankola, Paras Mhambrey, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, but most couldn’t bowl express quick through every session of play.

Sekar was the first genuine fast bowler that India had always yearned for. At his peak, he was the fastest bowler in India and was fast-tracked to the Indian team for the 1982-83 tour of Pakistan after impressing the legendary Lala Amarnath during an Irani Cup match in Delhi in October 1982. In Pakistan, coming in as a replacement for Madan Lal, Sekar attracted the attention of Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz, who came to watch him bowl at the nets. Former England captain David Gower called him the fastest in India (in 1984-85).

Sekar, who, since then, has played his part in imbibing a fast-bowling culture in the country, sees the setting up of the MRF Pace Foundation by Ravi Mammen in 1987 as an important moment in the evolution of cricket in India. “Ravi spoke to Syed Kirmani who helped him secure the services of Dennis Lillee,” remembers Sekar. The Pace Foundation became the hub for youngsters dreaming of bowling fast and continues to hone the skills of budding speedsters in the region.

“The Foundation provided the infrastructure and the technical support in the shape of Lillee and now Glenn McGrath. We are seeing the fruits today as the selectors have a large pool of youngsters to pick from,” notes Sekar. Srinath — the next genuine quick after Sekar — was a finished product of the foundation, giving Mammen, Lillee and their team the confidence to keep the project running.

Srinath and then Zaheer Khan signified speed. “Zaheer was a genuine quick bowler,” says Sekar. “They inspired Indians to take up fast bowling and the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s experiment with sporting pitches also helped the fast bowlers gain confidence.”

The national and most state teams today heavily rely on the quicks to fetch winning results, which earlier looked improbable. More state associations are now preparing pitches that provide assistance to fast bowlers.

“It’s always been good batting conditions and bowling conditions for spinners here. But what I have heard is that the pitches are a little different now and there is more in it for the pacers now which I think is great,” McGrath says. “If you are bowling on a pitch that’s not giving you anything it’s hard work. It’s a combination of a different attitude and different conditions but also you see that India’s line-up for quite some years now has a quality fast bowling attack. When you have a strong bowling line-up in your national team, it filters down with more people wanting to become fast bowlers as well.”

Echoing the Australian, Kapil says: “Look at the IPL. Every team relies on Indian quick bowlers and there is a long list of performers. Every team in the IPL wants fast bowlers and they are available too.”

In Mohammad Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, and Umesh Yadav — rated among the best fast bowlers to have played for India — the youngsters have many role models.

“They have been a wonderful lot with their ability to bowl quick consistently,” says Prabhakar. The longevity and impact of bowlers like Ishant and Zaheer are reasons for selectors to invest in fresh talent. The present National selection committee has three fast bowlers – Chetan Sharma, Debasish Mohanty and Harvinder Singh.

Harshal Patel of Royal Challengers Bangalore   –  Sportzpics / IPL


The speed factor makes the pool of young bowlers exciting. There’s a long list in Mohammad Siraj, T. Natarajan, Avesh Khan, Prasidh Krishna, Harshal Patel, Deepak Chahar, Shivam Mavi, Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Basil Thampi, Arshdeep Singh, Ishan Porel, and then there’s the even younger lot of Rajvardhan Hangargekar, Ravi Kumar, Akash Singh, Sushant Mishra, Kartik Tyagi and Vidyadhar Patil.

The surge in the number of youngsters looking to bowl fast is a result of the sustained efforts of the coaches at the junior level. The National Cricket Academy — thanks to its former head, Rahul Dravid, and the current in-charge, V. V. S. Laxman, and their support teams — deserves credit for keeping tabs on the young talent, monitoring their progress, and giving them a break at the opportune time. The lack of expertise in biomechanics to groom the fast bowlers was a drawback but the BCCI has made efforts to provide the best to the coaches and the players.

The NCA set a plan when Dravid was given the responsibility. It was his vision, in the company of Paras Mhambrey, that led to the creation of a pool of fast bowlers. It was aimed at keeping the supply line uninterrupted with the help of junior scouts and coaches at the state level. A structure was put in place where the emphasis was on a regular exposure through India `A’ squads with regular tours to England, New Zealand and Australia. The trainers and physios at the NCA created a fitness structure and Mhambrey developed a strong pool in all age groups.

The steady rise in the reputation of India’s pace strength is playing a positive role like the one that triggered a spin revolution in the 60s, with B. S. Chandrasekhar, E. A. S. Prasanna, Bishan Singh Bedi and Srinivas Venkataraghavan winning matches at home and overseas.

Arshdeep Singh of Punjab Kings.   –  Sportzpics / IPL


India’s depth in the fast-bowling department keeps it ahead of other international teams with the replacements being as good as the first-choice pacers. Techniques, and game and stress management are getting sharpened in the competitive environments of the IPL. The League allows the bowler to test individual skills and develop the self-belief that drives them to excellence at the international level. The constant interaction with the best in the game helps in the learning process, with the NCA and the senior national team thinktank always involved. India, today, is no longer a meek travelling side — a side embarrassingly trying to take the shine off the new ball to bring the spinners into play. Host nations, now, think twice before preparing a bouncy or a grassy pitch for India. Many, including Australia and England, have paid the price for taking on India’s fast bowling might.

Malik is scaring the batsmen with his searing pace. He is leaving them with scars. And many more Indian youngsters are waiting in the wings to do just the same.

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