The last battles of Lasith Malinga | Sunday Observer

The last battles of Lasith Malinga

Lasith Malinga wants to know where he should field. In the previous over he was at deep cover, which was perhaps an oversight. When a ball was struck directly at him he collected cleanly enough, but the batsmen still looked for a second.

He soon gets the captain’s attention and has himself stashed away at short fine leg. This is to no avail. The batsman flicks, and the ball comes at Malinga again, this time a little to his left and at pace. He dives, falls over. By the time he hits the ground, the umpire is already preparing to signal a boundary.

During Malinga’s most exquisite years, even batsmen who knew they were about to be yorked were routinely powerless to prevent the rattling of their stumps. Deliveries that should have arrived at shin height ducked beneath bats, ricocheted off toes,clattered into wickets.

It is terrible that cricket is said to be in bed with politics in Sri Lanka,because that implies consent on the part of cricket, where, in fact, the relationship is more like a commuting woman’s travails with a street harasser.

Politicians are forever thirstily eyeing cricket up. When fans become wistful, politicians sidle up and attempt to persuade the star to stave off retirement for a few months. At the very least, they will be in pointed attendance at the farewell game. Kumar Sangakkara was offered the UK ambassadorship on his last day; Mahela Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan also had the president turn up at the ground; Sanath Jayasuriya was, of course, himself an MP during his final years.

Malinga, as ever, has defied the trend. He has spent his twilight years actively pissing politicians off.

Last year, at a time when his place in the team was already in question, he effectively called the sports minister a cricketing illiterate.The minister was initially incensed but eventually extended an olive branch, organising a publicised meeting between the two. Months later, when a public “ministerial probe” into Sri Lanka’s poor form was held, an easy PR exercise for the minister, Malinga rocked up to the event and hijacked the narrative by shellacking the cricket board.

It is no surprise, Malinga thinks, he has not been picked for Sri Lanka since. But this is only the latest of his battles.

The first defiance, in 2008 at age 24, was to Arjuna Ranatunga- The Godfather, basically -who in a brief and head masterly reign at SLC, had demanded Malinga shear his recently grown curls.

“It’s a gentleman’s game, is what Arjuna told me,” Malinga remembers, sitting on a gym bench at the Khettarama stadium, where he comes to bowl in the academy nets a few mornings a week. These sessions serve a greater purpose than merely keeping Malinga sharp: they are his way of insisting he is still here. That he is not going away.

“So if it’s a gentleman’s game, tell me - I have played 15years of international cricket and have I ever been fined for bad behaviour? If you want to talk about discipline, where else do you want to look than my conduct on the field?”

That he feels misunderstood is clear in the first few minutes of our conversation. In the years following the first skirmish Malinga found himself increasingly besieged at home. “I only play for money - that’s what they say, no? There’s a sports talk show that has had this as their theme in about 90% of their episodes.”

Where those more beloved of the island, the Sangakkaras and the Jayawardenes (who,unlike Malinga, had actually captained IPL sides), viewed the media as a battleground and frequently waged successful offensives, Malinga’s response to public affront was to recoil. If he ever lashed out, the responses heaved with so much raw emotion they usually worsened his position.

In 2013, while SLC and the players were in the midst of one of their annual contracts crises, Malinga felt a TV reporter had crowded him as he stepped out of his cyan Mitsubishi Evo X. “Vadakbalan yanava manussayo yanna,” he spat out - effectively “Mind your own business”, though some of the snap in the rebuke is lost in the translation.

“How many players anywhere get that kind of treatment?” he snarls, thinking back on the coverage. “At least someone is benefiting. If they are making a profit by selling me, then never mind. I am happy they can do that.”

He still seethes about the flak he copped for conceding 54 runs in the 2012 World T20 final. He is sore at supposedly being elbowed out of the T20 captaincy in 2016. Most of all, he is bristling at Sri Lanka’s selectors. For eight months, they have had him dangling. They have insisted he remains an option in T20 cricket at least, citing his skill and his experience. Yet a place in the squad has not been forthcoming.

If there was any doubt that latter-day Malinga is a man fuelled primarily by grievance, consider the following. Last December he made the extraordinary decision to break a seven-year first-class drought, appearing for Nondescripts in a three-dayer against Tamil Union. His previous first-class game was his final Test match, in the 2010 series in which Murali retired.

“When I got left out of the squad for the India series, the selectors said they were resting me,” he says. “So that’s the thing. I wanted to show that I can even play a three-dayer. I don’t need resting.”

It is not that Malinga seeks out controversy or wilfully strives against the grain. Being different is just what has always come naturally. The bowling style is a case in point. The origin story might have you believe he specifically engineered the round-arm action to exploit the lack of bounce in the beach matches of his youth. Not so: he just doesn’t remember bowling any other way.

In his early years, Malinga’s uniqueness was occasionally an impediment. Some coaches had no idea what to do with him, never having seen his like. Others took the opinion that he would ruin his back soon enough, and withheld from him their attention. These were the first real doubters. Since his late teens, Malinga had folks he wished to prove wrong.

“I hope you understand what I mean when I say Lasith is street smart,” says Jayawardene, the captain who oversaw Malinga’s sharp international rise. “He is such an unusual bowler, he had to learn so many things on his own -even when to release the ball to get the line and length he wants. That is all different for him than it is for others”.

Champaka Ramanayake, who has coached Malinga since he was 17, confirms a remarkable independence. “Sometimes you have to hold a bowler’s hand, but Lasith was never that sort of a guy.

Even when he was young, he would come to a practice session with a very clear idea of what he wanted to work on. My job, I realised, was to support him. He picked up quite early how important the yorker would be for him. In a lot of sessions that’s all he bowled.”

Later, once Malinga honed his craft and became one of the great limited-overs match-winners, his team-mates began to see the benefit in his unconventional patterns of thought.

“Lasith was a bit of a quiet guy to begin with, but we always knew he was very intelligent,” Jayawardene says. “Once he was settled it was quite clear that he is someone who thinks outside the box. The way he looks a ta batsman and works out where to bowl to him - he comes up with things a lot of bowlers wouldn’t.”

Even the most ardent Malinga critic will not dispute that as a tactician, the man is a small wonder. He remembers almost every wicket, going back to his first school match at age 17. “It is a big thing to have that memory,” Malinga says. “If you can log your successes and you know what went into your failures, you end up with sharper plans.”

It was in the other big game against India - the 2014 World T20 final - that Sri Lanka best weaponised a Malinga strategy. It helped that on that occasion he was captain.Though the leadership had fallen into his lap only in the course of the tournament, and the first two wins as captain were a little haphazard, Malinga was finally ready to seize his moment in the approach to the final. He sat his bowlers down on the eve of the game and acquainted them with a little heresy: “We don’t have to take wickets to win this match.”

“It wasn’t something that Lasith had to convince us about too much,” says Nuwan Kulasekara, Malinga’s death-bowling partner in this match, and many others. “By this game he had played so much T20, and because of the IPL he knew the Indian batsmen as well. We trusted him. But I still don’t think anyone would have expected we could tie India up like we did. Even I was staggered at how well it worked, actually.”

Key to the plan’s success was not only that it accounted for India’s weaknesses but that it was also a beautiful fit for the Sri Lanka attack. Angelo Mathews, Sachithra Senanayake and Rangana Herath were proven squeezers. In Kulasekara, Malinga had especial faith. The two had played together, at various levels, for 13 years. “By this stage we knew in our gut what the other could do,” Malinga says. “As long as we got to the death overs without too much damage, Kule and Iknew that we could topple them.”

By the end of the decade each had developed a mean yorker, and it was this delivery that landed Sri Lanka their first global trophy in 18 years. Together, in one of the biggest games of their lives, they conceded only 13 from the 18th, 19th and 20th overs.

Much is made of Yuvraj Singh’s failure in that game (though it is worth remembering that he hit 60 off 43 balls two matches previous, against Australia), but what deserves more attention is the skill with which Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni were muzzled. Of the 13 balls they faced in the last three overs, only nine runs came off the bat. That Sri Lanka prevented boundaries almost to the total exclusion of pursuing wickets was revisionist enough, but the plan to Dhoni sprang from a further Malinga unorthodoxy.

“It was when I thought about Dhoni that I really thought wide yorkers would work,” Malinga says. “A lot of people think: ‘Don’t face a cricketer based on his reputation.’ For some batsmen, I don’t believe that, because these guys are huge names. When they come to the middle, the reputation also comes. We knew that Dhoni is someone who likes to hit sixes. I thought: How can we prevent that? Even if he hits a four, it’s like a victory for us. So, that’s why the wide yorker. That’s why it worked.”

Five times Dhoni swung at Malinga in the last over, mostly attempting the big shot - the helicopter - over the leg side. Three times he missed altogether, two wide yorkers and a straight one sneaking through beneath bat. When he did make contact, the ball merely dribbled off the square. He had had four runs off seven balls at innings’ end; one of the cleverest cricketers of his era outwitted.

Malinga led in only six more T20s, partly due to injury. And in2023 (World Cup) he would be 39 years old and the knees and ankles would have to be bionic.

Malinga chooses to spend May at the IPL, as a bowling consultant for Mumbai Indians, instead of playing in SLC’s domestic one-day competition.

The decision essentially puts him out of contention for ODI selection. It is probably a sensible call, as his knees are unlikely to sustain ten-over workouts, and it is in the shortest format that he would be of most use anyway- the World T20 in two years’ time a more reasonable target than next year’s50-over event.

And yet, Malinga has got something desperately wrong. How does it look? How does it appear when, having been picked in a domestic squad, he fails to show because he is at the IPL? How will it seem to those who take every chance to malign him?

Does it not play into their hands? All of his sweating: the commutes to the Khettarama nets to bowl at young batsmen who could never have handled him in his pomp, the sweltering afternoons chasing leather in SLC’s ridiculous23-team T20 tournament - all of that can be made to seem irrelevant, because for the second time in his career he has effectively called time on a form of international cricket while at the big-money showcase across the Palk Strait.

- The Cricket Monthly