Umran Malik Prequel: The path from J&K’s rolling hills to franchise net bowler to ultimate IPL stardom

Net Bowlers

At the IPL 2021, Umran Malik was still a nets bowler for the Sunrisers Hyderabad and replaced T Natarajan, who went out due to Covid-19. Without the claustrophobia of the nettings, but with the nerves of the showtime arc lights showering on him, he produced the second-fastest ball of the tournament, a 152.95 kph brute against Royal Challengers Bangalore. Life has changed for Umran in the space of few months. The Jammu lad had impressed the then skipper Virat Kohli so much that he was summoned as a net bowler with the Indian team.

This year, he has taken his performance to the next level as 150 kph-plus deliveries from him have become a new norm and Wankhede was breathless watching him agape. Not every day does one Indian fast bowler rouse an entire stadium on its feet. A fan was holding a placard that read, ‘I am here to see Umran Malik’s bowling.’

What’s even more impressive is that other rookie pacers from Jammu and Kashmir are following in Malik’s footsteps – very quickly too.

One such promising fast bowler is Basit Bashir. The 19-year-old from Kupwara is currently a part of Punjab Kings’ net-bowing contingent in the ongoing IPL 2022. The 6 feet 3-inch tall left-arm pacer, Basit, has represented J&K at U-16 and U-19 levels. He was also a part of Zonal Cricket Academy and MRF Pace Academy in the past.

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Bashir was in Chennai at MRF Pace Academy when he got a call from the Punjab Kings that they wanted him as a net bowler. The coaches at the MRF pace academy allowed Bashir to join the Punjab Kings, but had one condition.

“Senthil sir (Mylvahanan Senthilnathan) told me that I must come back to the academy once my stint with Punjab Kings is over. It was the most difficult two days of my life, I had to choose between MRF Pace Academy and IPL. But luckily, I got the permission,” Bashir tells Indian Express.

Fast bowling came naturally to Basit as his father, Basir Ahmed Lone, and maternal uncle Tahir Mir were fast bowlers.

“My father played till district, but my mamu has been part of the Jammu and Kashmir’s Ranji Trophy team. My elder brother Faisal Bashir was also part of the Jammu and Kashmir U-23 camp. Cricket is in our blood, so I never had to look anywhere else for inspiration,” says Bashir.

In 2018-19, Basit was selected for U-16 trials at the Sher-i-Kashmir Stadium in Srinagar. And this is where Irfan Pathan, then mentor of Jammu and Kashmir’s cricket teams, spotted him.

“Irfan sir called me and asked me where I am from? Have I played any professional cricket before? I told him this was my first trial. Eight days later, I got a call that I have been selected for the Ranji Trophy camp,” says Basit. The left-arm pacer bagged two five-wickets hauls in three matches. In 2019-20, Bashir was the top wicket-taker for J&K in the Vinoo Mankad Trophy (17 wickets in 6 matches) and Cooch Behar Trophy (25 wickets in 6 games), but Covid had some other plans.

“I remember seeing Basit playing on the mountains of Kupwara. A couple of days before I went to Kupwara, there was a conflict between the army and the militants. I was staying not even 100m far from the conflict zone. The next day, I saw Basit, and i was very impressed with his bowling. So straightaway, I put him in the U-19 age group,” says Irfan Pathan, who was appointed as player-cum-mentor in March 2018.

Then there is a 26-year-old swing bowler Sharukh Ahmed Dar, who lost his cricket-loving father at the age of 14, and is a net bowler for the Sunrisers Hyderabad. Dar hails from Srinagar.

Sharukh, a well-known pacer in Srinagar, courtesy his brilliant performances in the Downtown Champions League, a T20 Tennis ball tournament, started taking cricket seriously only when Irfan told him that he has some good natural talent.

“Irfan sir gave me the self-belief. Within a year, I was with the senior team. And now I am with the SRH set-up and learning the trade from my all-time favourite Dale Steyn. It was all possible because of Irfan Pathan,” says Dar, whose family is more into Bollywood than cricket.

“In Kashmir, we all play cricket. Even in my family, my uncle used to play cricket, but never as a professional. We are more into Bollywood. My name is Sharukh, my elder brother’s name is Salman, my cousin’s name is Aamir,” laughs Dar.

Dar is hopeful that next year he will be playing for the Sunrisers Hyderabad, like his friends Umran Malik and Abdul Samad.

“Umran has set a great example for us. If I manage to impress Dale Steyn and Tom Moody this season, maybe I will be playing for the SRH next season,” says Dar.

Had it not been for former Indian all-rounder Irfan Pathan, none of the J&K boys would have got the chance to play in the IPL.

“It was fantastic, wasn’t it? The entire stadium was chanting his name,” Irfan Pathan chortles to this newspaper about Wankhede chanting Malik’s name on Wednesday.

Pathan, who has played 29 Tests and 120 ODIs for India, says there will be more Abdul Samads and Umran Maliks from Jammu and Kashmir.

“There are a lot of youngsters in Jammu and Kashmir who are coming to cricket. Which is the best thing that has happened to India,” says Pathan, who has spent two years the the role of mentor to the Jammu and Kashmir cricket team.

In 2018, when Pathan took the role of Jammu and Kashmir’s player-cum-mentor, he proposed a 40-over cricket tournament across the state. Then JKCA CEO Ashiq Ali Bukhari and administrator CK Prasad gave their nod. And Irfan selected 100 cricketers from 22 districts of J&K for different age groups. Some of the prominent names were Abdul Samad, Umran Malik, and Rasikh Salam.

Many youngsters and the senior J&K cricketers feel that he changed the mindset of the team. J&K even reached the quarter-finals of the 2019-20 Ranji Trophy season.

Pacer Umar Nazir Mir, 28, has played 42 first-class matches for J&K, but he feels the professionalism in the system came only after the arrival of Irfan Pathan.

“He instilled the belief that yes, we can also win. We can beat the top domestic sides. Our players can play in the IPL and for India,” says Nazir, who, too is a net bowler for SRH in the ongoing IPL season.

So what did Pathan change?

“Look, J&K has been a conflict zone. There was a lack of opportunities for the youngsters. Apart from it, there was no discipline or you can say there was not a proper cricketing atmosphere,” says Pathan.

“On my first day, ten people accompanied me to the ground. But when they realised that this fellow is going to spend the entire day on the ground the number was reduced to 2 by the evening. I set the training time 10 am for the first two days. To my surprise even the assistant coach was coming at 10:15, and senior players were coming at 10:30. There was no discipline.

“I sent a couple of guys back. I told them specifically that even if you are an assistant coach, I don’t care. But from the next day onwards, everyone started to come on time,” reveals Pathan.

Pathan spotted Abdul Samad and Umran Malik at the Science College ground in Jammu during a camp organised for the state Ranji Trophy team. He spotted Sharukh, Basit and Rasikh at Sher-e-Kashmir Cricket Stadium in Sri Nagar. Pathan was so impressed with Basit that he even went to Kupawara just to watch him play.

Pathan revealed that when he joined Jammu and Kashmir cricket team as mentor-cum-coach, he had three different contracts that would have given him hefty money.

“I had around Rs 5 crore contracts from the different cricket leagues. The only thing I was required is to take retirement. But I am glad that I didn’t take those offers,” says Pathan.

What struck Pathan most during his two-year stint with J&K cricket was how everyone wanted to play cricket and wanted to do well in the sport.

“Everyone wanted to have the opportunity to play. Be it a talented guy or not-so-talented guy. This is what struck me the most. Guys are playing on the banks of river, and mountains, playing on the mat in canvas shoes, but they just want to play. Even a guy who can hardly bowl 110-115, he was confident enough that he can do well. The level of confidence amazed me. That’s the passion for the game in the state,” says Pathan.

Pathan says those two years with the J&K cricket were the most satisfying time of his career.

“I played nearly two decades of professional cricket nearly took 900 wickets and scored more than 5000 runs, but the most satisfaction I got out of my cricketing life was that two years I spent with the Jammu and Kashmir cricket,” says Pathan.

Even though he is no more associated with the J&K cricket association, Pathan is still the mentor, elder brother and father figure to most of the young cricketers from Jammu and Kashmir.

“In 2017-18, when I was about to take up the role with Jammu & Kashmir, Kapil paaji was in that meeting with the J&K officials. I still remember his words, ‘If you genuinely want to do something for the country, stop thinking about playing all those leagues and take Jammu & Kashmir cricket in your hands. Help the youngsters out there. It won’t be just a cricketing assignment but a service to the nation,’” says Pathan.

“I just wanted to give something back to Indian cricket. Kaafi logo ki duaan mili hai aur wo kaafi hai,” he signs off.

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