Umran Malik axe: less of mishandling; more of acceptance from Sunrisers

The bowler finds himself in midst of a narrative aimed in criticism of the Sunrisers Hyderabad franchise. But have they really been unfair on their expensive quick?
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With rise into prominence comes expectation. But also criticism. Popularity and fame is living on the edge: slip-up and the adoring public turns into naysayers and lashes at cricketers every step along the way. But Umran Malik has been fortunate. His persistent failings and ultimate axing by Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) has had a reverse impact, with accusations of being mishandled and mistreated made on the 2016 champions instead throughout the IPL 2023. 

Emotionally invested and irrational fans aside, prominent experts have also been insistent on claiming Sunrisers have given their raw young speedster a rough deal. How can they drop the Jammu and Kashmir seamer that they were the ones to identify and instantly rope in two years back? How can they deboard the train they were so convinced would help them reach the ultimate destination?

Often the word on the outside develops into a full-blown narrative. And it's that much easier with Sunrisers: a franchise historically called out for poor treatment handed over to two of its esteemed former players. In parting ways with SRH in the manner that David Warner and Rashid Khan did, the legend duo left a blot on the franchise's name. It also doesn't help that they have season after season of selection and tactical misjudgements and just ended with a wooden spoon tag. 

But this one is different. Amidst the talk of unfair treatment accorded to the bowler, the IPL fandom has almost forgotten, or being conveniently made to ignore by so-called experts, that Sunrisers made their decision after seven outings offered to their incumbent. In those seven matches, Umran Malik took only five wickets and averaged above 40 with an economy rate of 10.35 - presenting an unmanageable scenario for the team, which had to make up his four overs in the middle. 

Even when they brought him back for the season finale fixture against Mumbai Indians (MI), the Sunrisers would've done so reluctantly and with good reason as the bowler ultimately gave away 41 off his 3 overs without bagging a wicket, ending the campaign by worsening his already horrific average to 43.40 and economy rate to 10.85. Even the opportunity to regain some of the lost pride was denied to Sunrisers from his end. 

In essence, when the 'Orange Army' took a decision to bench Umran Malik after his seven outings, they were accepting and admitting in all honesty that retaining an expensive bowler of his kind is near-impossible without compromising on control and pressure desired against the opposition.

Sunrisers run out of patience with Umran Malik

For what it's worth, Sunrisers have actually been the most patient lot on Umran. Even during his breakthrough season of 22 scalps taken in IPL 2022, the bowler went for a costly 9.03 runs an over. For all his wickets, the express quick could never offer his captain control and leash with the ball. He has an overall IPL career tally of 29 wickets taken from 25 games at 9.33 an over. But it wasn't until his 24th game, did the franchise contemplate dropping him. 

Sunrisers perhaps recognised early they can't expect a bowler handpicked in his infancy in competitive cricket to be the robust product and must create a role and an environment where he can unleash his strengths: pace and hostility. But what has thwarted their wishes with the enforcer and forced them to backtrack is the nature of a defence-dominant bowling format like T20. 

On flat pitches, unrelenting pace delivered with brittle accuracy is nothing but an ideal fooder for boundary hitting. If not executed on defensive parlance - in lengths, lines, variations and trajectory - the cricket ball is destined to be fetched from the ropes against rampaging batters regardless of how quickly it got released from the hands. 

That's just the brutal reality of the shortest format, where batters have to maximise each ball out in the middle or risk giving the opposition an upper hand, for a below-par score in flat conditions would only allow the counterparts to milk the bowling, not be forced to push on the accelerator and take risks. If anything, IPL batters now have greater freedom to keep their foot on the bowler's throat with the advent of the 'Impact Player', which lengthens resources. 

It's why economy rate is the single biggest metric to judge a T20 bowler on. When an argument is made that an Umran Malik is picked to take breakthroughs and shouldn't be called out for his expensive streak, it belies the context of the format, where the surest means to chip away at the wickets column is through defensive skills. The former also only works in perceptions and arguments, which lose steam in wake of the record: if Umran is a designated "wicket-taker", how come he averages nearly 27 in a 24-ball worth spell format and takes only 1.20 wickets per outing in the IPL?

The Sunrisers have chosen to be sitting ducks on this one without putting this context to their defences, which, critically, Umran shall be thankful for as the onset of personal criticism may have crushed the confidence of a raw young 23-year-old. If fans were told the exact backstory and intention of such moves, they would be the first ones to drive the narrative correctly without fetching their bets blindsighted, as they have since Aiden Markram's puzzling remarks. 

As strange and doubtful as Markram's comments were, they weren't assertive of anything. If Markram stood unsure on why Umran Malik has been dropped, he and us on the outside only needed to go through Brian Lara's press briefings during the tournament, where the legend and coach, touted to be the more influential voice in SRH's selection matters, explained why the decision was made in the first place. 

"You just have to look at the form of the player. We have great expectations of Umran, and he has got Dale Steyn to work with. But we have to play each game to win. We have to put our best eleven out on the field. And now, with the Impact Player, our best 12. It’s strictly on the fact that it’s about the form of the player that we look at before picking the team," Lara had said after the game against the Gujarat Titans on May 15. 

"We have 25 players, and I would have liked you to ask about (Kartik) Tyagi because he is also a special talent and he’s only had one opportunity so far. I can’t see anything wrong in terms of selection. I just feel that every time the team gets on to the park, we are not playing the game that we are supposed to," he added. 

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The coach couldn't have stood clearer on his call amidst the blurry narrative peddled on the outside with counter-arguments that make little sense. Of those, the one that raised doubts on SRH's persistence with the expensive T Natarajan was an interesting one. The left-arm pacer gave away 9.11 runs an over for his 10 wickets but missed only two of SRH's all games, as opposed to Umran's six. 

But that would be a convenient mixing of two different cases to grind an axe with Sunrisers, who clearly backed a bowler who, while still being expensive, offered them left-arm variety, swing and less than a run per over conceded to the opposition more than a brash quick who imposed on them irrevocable strife whenever he turned out. 

If at all there is a pertinent defence of him, it is in that Umran is still only 23 and has a long way to go. But here's the thing: the cricketer's infancy has all the immediate bearing on Sunrisers' fortunes. How do they continue to persist on his raw skills and give him the chance to develop without losing out on true value and impact at his end in what is now a ten-way race to bag four playoffs spots, the brutality of which they've just found out? And if they do, how fair would that still be on say a Kartik Tyagi, who, too, could do with some wholehearted backing and vote of confidence?

For long-term vibrancy, though, Umran would have to ultimately find means to exercise greater control on opposition batters by bolstering his defensive bowling skills. Or else, he'd continue needing irrational noises to come to his defence and avoid the brunt of the public wrath on being dropped.