Irfan Pathan still remembers that day when a young Abdul Samad introduced him to his friend Umran Malik. Much before their meeting, a few years ago, Samad had spoken highly of Umran’s pace and insisted that Pathan and the other coaching staff of Jammu and Kashmir meet the 18-year-old.
By then, Samad was already a known name in the cricket circuit of Jammu and Kashmir, whereas Umran had only featured at the U-19 level. But Samad knew that his ‘best friend’ Umran had it in him to make it big.
And being the mentor of the Jammu and Kashmir cricket team back then, Irfan was impressed with Umran’s speed, the first time he saw him. Both him and coach Milap Mewada observed the youngster from Jammu and were certain that with a bit of fine tuning, Umran could make things count.
“Samad introduced me to him. Kisi ko dost chahiye toh Samad jaisa dost chahiye because he introduced him to me and later, it was him who took Umran to the Sunrisers Hyderabad nets. When I saw Umran for the first time, that kind of pace awed me,” Pathan tells Sportstar . “But he was a raw talent and would bowl too many full tosses in the nets and would be here and there. Obviously he was jumping out too much and that’s why he would lose accuracy… But he worked on that and has been able to stay focused…”
Mewada remembers one of the practice games which Umran was part of and how he had troubled some of the already established cricketers like Qamran Iqbal with his raw pace. “But back in those days, he was a bit here and there and would bowl quite a few wide balls. In the one-day games, there would be occasions when some would be eight-ball over or so, but of those eight deliveries, two or three would zip through and make it difficult for batters,” Mewada remembers.
While he slowly started improving and looked more accurate, the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the curfew forced the Jammu and Kashmir team to halt its camps and later shift to Vadodara and prepare for Ranji Trophy. And the wait grew longer for Umran. He kept on training and in 2021, he was part of the Sunrisers Hyderabad camp in the Indian Premier League as a net bowler and in the second phase of the tournament in the United Arab Emirates, Umran was drafted into the final eleven and there hasn’t been any looking back since.
The young gun has impressed one and all with his searing pace and constantly clocking near 150 kmph. He also played a couple of first-class games for Jammu and Kashmir and a lone four-day fixture for India A in South Africa and has so far claimed seven wickets in the format. He was retained by Sunrisers ahead of this year’s auction and the pacer has made the most of the opportunity, becoming one of the consistent performers for Sunriers, and earning praises from the cricketing fraternity.
He grabbed a five-for against Gujarat Titans on Wednesday, even though his team lost a close game . But with his grit and determination, Umran has been able to impress several current and former cricketers - including Dale Steyn - who feel that the pace sensation should be fast tracked into the Indian team at the earliest.
Pathan agrees that it is time to fast track him into the team, but also warns that it is important to handle the youngster with care. “If you get a good and quick fast bowler, you should absolutely fast track him to the national team, but you also need to look after him. If he does well, push him hard to do better, but when he doesn’t, try and understand why he hasn’t done well,” Pathan says.
“You need to look back and consider the fact that he has played a lesser amount of cricket. There is nothing better than being in the Indian team and training at the National Cricket Academy. So, you have to be mindful of the fact that he has not played enough domestic cricket and there could be a phase where he might look lost, and in those times, you need to protect him, be with him…”
Pathan himself had made his debut for the Indian team at the age of 19, and having been there and done that, he understands what it takes to sustain at the highest level. “Trust me on this, in T20 cricket, taking a five-wicket haul is far more difficult than taking a hat-trick and when he has done that with confidence, it is time to push him to the highest level…” Pathan says.
“When I say be mindful, I am not saying that he won’t do well. I am very confident of his success at the highest level because of the pace and the rhythm. When he bowls quick, his seam position is quite straight, not exactly like a Mohammed Shami, but he has got a decent wrist. What I am saying is, be aware of his (strengths and weaknesses) and back him every time,” the former India bowling all-rounder adds.
Going forward, another major factor will be injury management. Pathan remembers the time when injury stalled his career after a meteoric rise. “When I look back, I feel I rushed too much to return from injury. I remember talking to John Wright and the physio and they all wanted me to get back to the Indian team quickly because I was doing so well. Soon after I came into the team, I had become the top bowler, but the mistake I made was that I rushed things after injury,” he reminisces.
“Now, with facilities available, the Indian team makes sure that they do proper rehab and only once the player is match-ready, he is available for selection. But in those days, we were still learning to manage injuries and I remember we had to go abroad to get a scan done and get proper treatment. We were far behind in terms of managing sports injuries, but now, we have world-class doctors, experts and the NCA, BCCI are doing a great job. So for a young guy like Umran, you need to give that extra cushion and protect him for at least five years so that he does not get lost,” Pathan adds.
Over the last few years, several youngsters made it to the Indian team but not many could cement their spots, and knowing the system inside out, Pathan hopes that special talents like Umran are backed. “If he does well, things will automatically go well, but in case he doesn’t, don’t leave his hand. If his talent excites you now, then please back him for the next few years. It will help him and Indian cricket…”