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PTI

It was business as usual for coach Randhir Singh Manhas during a winter day in 2017 when a 17-year-old boy walked up to him during a net session at the Maulana Azad Stadium in Jammu's Nawabad Area.

"Sir, kya aap mujhe ball daalne dengey? (Could you allow me to bowl)," Manhas remembered the short and stout boy's request while senior state team batter Jatin Wadhawan was having a knock at the nets.

"What's your name?"

"Umran Malik," replied the boy, who had dropped in at the net session without bowling spikes.

Manhas obliged but till date, he has failed to figure out whether it was his gut feel or just wanting to be indulgent with a young boy, that made him agree to the request. He had a bowler short at the nets, though.

Whatever it was, Manhas' role in giving a precocious talent wings to fly is beyond doubt.

The seeds of the express pace deliveries that Umran is hurling at the best of batters under intense pressure on a platform like the IPL, were sown that very day at the MA Stadium.

It was the birth of Umran Malik, the fastest bowler in the history of Indian cricket, who has made heads turn with 15 wickets in just eight games in this edition of the T20 league.

"On that day, he was very quick for a 17-year-old as Jatin, who was a first-class player was hurried by him.

"In my mind, I knew that the kid was special and my views were seconded by our senior team pacer Ram Dayal, who had then just reached the ground and saw him bowl. Ram told me that this boy had bright future," Manhas, the coach of the Jammu District Cricket Council said.

Umran is not a product of the system but despite the system, and his rise can be attributed to that.

He didn't receive any structured coaching till the age of 17, never played with a leather ball, and all he did was to play in the 'Mohalla' tennis ball tourneys, from which any teenager could earn anything between Rs 500 to Rs 3000 per match depending on the reputation.

Hailing from a middle-class family in Jammu's Gujjar Nagar, his father, who runs his own fruit shop in the local market, initially wanted him to focus on studies, but later, along with his wife, encouraged him to take up professional cricket.

Having impressed the coach, Umran was asked to enrol in the academy but Manhas recollected that in the initial days in 2017-18, he was never a regular.

"He would come one day and then remain absent for the next few days. We had to tell him that he needs to be disciplined about training as he cannot let the opportunities go abegging.

"I told him, 'listen Umran, the day you play at the national level, you won't have to look back. So be serious'. I sent him for -19 trials, where he borrowed bowling spikes and bowled. He was picked for Cooch Behar Trophy but got only one match, and that too, a rain-truncated one against Odisha.

"But those who watched him told me that the keeper was standing a good 35 yards behind the stumps, something that doesn't happen a lot at U-19 level," said the coach, who is a storehouse of anecdotes.

One of his favourite stories is the one where the Assam Ranji team, coached by former keeper Ajay Ratra, had come to Jammu for an away game.

"Umran was at the stadium that day and Assam team needed net bowlers for practice. Ajay asked Umran that if he would like to bowl at the nets. Umran agreed immediately but after 15 minutes, the Assam coach asked Umran to stop. Reason? His men had a match to play and didn't want them to get hurt," Manhas laughed.

In fact, Ratra was surprised that Umran wasn't playing Ranji Trophy back then.

The sandy banks of River Tawi and strongly built lower body

One of the greatest pacers of all time, the legendary Andy Roberts, in various interviews have laid out one basic ground rule about a fast bowler's physique.

"You bowl fast not just because you have strong upper body but because you have strong legs that help in building the rhythm," Roberts had once said.

In the case of Umran, one would be surprised to know that before he entered the Sunrisers Hyderabad fold, he had never been a part of any systematic gym sessions but still had a rock like lower body.

"His house is near river Tawi and the adjoining area of the river bank is primarily sandy. Umran grew up running on sandy fields and playing cricket all his formative years. That has led to a very strong lower body. You won't find many guys who at 17 had such fabulous body structure and in-built strength without any gym training," Manhas said.

As far as his yorkers are concerned, credit goes to tennis ball cricket where a fast one aimed at the base of the stumps, is often the go-to delivery for a pacer.

Jasprit Bumrah mastered it from tennis ball cricket, and so has Umran.

Samad: A friend in need is a friend indeed

The Jammu and Kashmir teams over the years have bene dominated by cricketers from the valley but in the case of Umran, it wasn't the cricketing establishment but a friend and a fellow competitor, who showed him the first staircase towards stardom.

It was his friend Abdul Samad, who is also a part of SRH.

"It was Samad, who would record his bowling videos and mail them to VVS Laxman sir and Tom Moody in June 2020, when only a few people were training post the first lockdown. Sunrisers liked his videos and the rest, as they say, is history."

Umran went to the UAE in 2020 as a net bowler and was performing the same duties in 2021, before T Natarajan's injury opened the doors for him, and his consistent 150 click bowling forced the selectors to make him a net bowler for the last T20 World Cup.

Now, things are happening too fast for Umran but Manhas is confident that he will adapt to the changes in life and the focus will remain on cricket and donning the India colours.

"He is learning a lot from the likes of Dale Steyn and I believe as he plays at the highest level, he will just keep on improving."

If life is a beautiful dream, Umran Malik is living it.

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