Millennium Post
Game On

Miles to go

In a sport where critics are unforgiving during players’ bad career patches, fiery pacer Umran Malik — a ‘work in progress’ — must take inspiration and guidance from his experienced counterparts and mentors to remain relevant in the long run

Miles to go

Notwithstanding the Covid 'outbreak' in the Delhi Capitals IPL team, a lot of focus has been on the flop shows, with former Team India captain Virat Kohli and current captain Rohit Sharma coming in for caustic criticism. Call it being put under the scanner or castigation of sorts, this sort of criticism is best reserved for the roadside paanwallah, not experts.

Cricket becomes a mass hysteria of sorts in India when the IPL is in progress. Heroes become zeroes and zeros become heroes. If Kohli and Rohit are now being slammed for lack of runs, then just a few weeks back, MS Dhoni was being ripped apart for no longer being a winner. The champion captain once again popped the champagne cork, by virtue of his performance against Mumbai Indians, forcing people to start calling him the same MSD of yore.

Hits and misses are part of IPL. It is impossible to be peaking right through the long competition, given the hard format and being inside the Bio Bubble. At a time when we thought India was done with the Covid-19 virus, new variants are emerging. Some have pressed the panic button, but, by now, everyone knows we have to live with the virus for a few years. Vaccine booster (or preventive) shots are again in demand. Yet, in the IPL, what is needed is booster shots of a different nature that can fire up performances.

Delhi Capitals were being blamed for players catching the virus, for no fault of theirs. It is not as if they did something outrageous to catch the virus. The sheer unpredictability and virulent nature of the virus allow it to hit people when least expected. But then, IPL teams have enough players to take the field even when some are quarantined. Even with a change of venue from Pune to Mumbai — a city with venue options galore — Delhi Capitals, under Rishabh Pant, continues to grab headlines.

As far as flop shows go, with regard to Kohli and Rohit, the criticism from fans and experts are like that of a hangman wanting to finish his work. When Ravi Shastri says on-air Kohli needs a break, it makes you sit up. Would Shastri have dared to say this when he and Kohli were heads of Team India not long ago? The answer is a firm 'no'.

Being a coach and a commentator are different jobs. Ravi Shastri was, is, and will continue to be one of the best observers of the sport. He is sharp, knows his cricket well and can point out such fine points that you and I cannot observe despite being glued to TV sets. It comes from experience, astuteness and, by nature, being a student of the game. That's why Shastri as a commentator is rated so highly.

This is the season when people are talking about comebacks by performers. Dinesh Karthik, 36, is being touted as the best thing, again, for Indian cricket. He must be chosen for the ICC World T20, say fans and influencers. The tournament will be held later in Australia in 2022. Yes, Dinesh has been explosive and exceptional. Whether the BCCI selectors will go for the old man or prefer younger, explosive talent remains to be seen.

Just as Dinesh Karthik is the flavour in this IPL, there have been rave reviews for tearaway fast bowler Umran Malik. Umran hails from Jammu and reams have been written about his pace and ability to shatter the confidence of the best batsmen.

Umran has a great body for fast bowling but to be bowling with the white ball in the shortest format at a red hot pace is not easy. Fast bowling is not just about pace. It is about being explosive, where the body language has to be aggressive and you have to be fearless. Thus far, Umran has shown a willingness to bowl with zeal and the speed guns are showing he bowls at a click of around 150 kmph.

Coming from a place where cricket is not as big as in other states in North India, Umran knows his chance to deliver was big. He has grabbed it and the dismissal of Shreyas Iyer, the Kolkata Knight Rider captain, has become the talking point in this summer of IPL.

The box office reviews for Umran are lavish. The verdict is out, he must be picked for Team India. These days, it is not just the former cricketers holding the mike who give their views on star players. Former cricketers have praised him for his prowess and penetration. Media and social media, too, feel Umran makes the cut straightaway for Team India!

This is where the trouble begins. When the going is good, a cricketer enjoys exalted status. If it's a batsman, he is praised sky high, even if he has survived on dropped catches, a few chances being spilt in the slips and some shots looking ugly. Such is the nature of cricket in the IPL, purity is not defined by grace. Fours and sixes from a batsman matter. Likewise, bowlers are praised for economical rate, dot balls, and also for taking wickets.

Umran is not perfect, as yet. In fact, he is far from it. Just as one swallow does not make a summer, a rocking IPL season does not guarantee he will be the next big superstar for Indian cricket. It is nice to see he has been devastating but one cannot ignore the fact, at times he has been wayward as well. Some of the deliveries have been fired beyond the leg stump region.

Fast bowling is a mixture of art and creativity. It's as simple as this, anyone can pick up a collection of brushes, paint and canvas. The final product of a tyro will not match that of Pablo Picasso or MF Hussain. To produce the best piece on the canvas is very different. There has to be a clear thought process and the end product is admired for its high monetary value because of its uniqueness.

Yes, Umran Malik is also unique. There was a time when Indian fast bowlers were riled and ridiculed as they hardly produced express pace. Umran Malik is a work in progress. He is fortunate to be with Sunrisers Hyderabad where his skipper Kane Williamson has allowed the bowler to express himself. With none other than South African Dale Steyn now monitoring Umran, you could be sure the 22-year-old bowler will keep learning.

This is not the first time an Indian fast bowler has fired on all cylinders in the IPL. We have had classic cases of Manpreet Gony, Khaleel Ahmed, T Natarajan and Aavesh Khan. Gony is gone, Natarajan has bounced back from injuries and seasoned fast bowlers who have been part of Team India will do well to advise Umran on the road ahead.

A fast bowler cannot be assessed on the basis of four overs he bowls in one match in the IPL. Such is the nature of fast bowling as a job, you have to be ready to get hit. These days when batsmen have been innovative and 360-degree batting, as defined by AB de Villiers, is being imitated, fast bowlers have to be ready with pace, skills, and a good mindset.

When you are young, it is easy to get carried away. Yes, Umran has won admirers even in Pakistan, a country that has produced some of the best fast bowlers — from Imran Khan to Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Umran has to be ready to bowl long spells with ferocity and feel. The real challenge starts now. The role models for him in Indian cricket are right there — Jasprit Bumrah, Mohd Shami and Bhuvi. These three speed merchants have learnt so much but not all of it is overnight.

By nature, being a fast bowler is a lonely job. You have to spend long hours at the nets. Batsmen no longer hesitate in taking a huge swipe, whatever be the format. Someone like Rishabh Pant will bat the same way in all formats. Can Umran Malik develop weapons that can hurt batsmen even if they are in a destructive mode remains to be seen.

The IPL is a great platform to perform and get noticed. Yet, when you make the transition from club cricket to T20 internationals, ODIs and Tests, a fast bowler's true calibre will be seen. I hope Umran finds the right mentors to guide him in the tricky lane called fast bowling.

Views expressed are personal

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