“The hunger of the lion was evident for all to see and it could have ended with four wickets already but he was prepared to wait for glory”
The ball seamed slightly away off the deck, the batsman was squared up and the resultant edge carried to the lone slip fielder. Malinga lifted his hands, pointing his index finger to the skies and celebrated as though it was just another to add to this tally of 301 ODI wickets.
There was no flying bird celebration, no ecstatic running, no wild celebrations. Lasith Malinga was back into the Lankan ODI setup and he took a mere five balls to strike first blood. Between late 2015 and mid, 2017, Malinga played no ODIs for Sri Lanka. Rumours were strife that the exciting seamer was on his last legs and it compounded with his oddities with the Sri Lankan Cricket Board.
While a return to the side came in June 2017, he appeared a spent force. In 13 ODIs, the ‘Slinga’ known for his wicket-taking abilities took a mere 10 wickets. His average of 62.30 was way above his career average of 28.92. The economy hit a peak at 6. He appeared to be done.
With fitness issues hogging, his pace, familiar yorkers and deadly slower balls went missing. The unrelenting accuracy seemed to have vanished too and batsmen began treating him with utter disdain. It didn’t take Sri Lanka long to move on. With the pace trio of Suranga Lakmal, Lahiru Kumara and Kasun Rajitha packing quite a punch, Malinga was surplus to requirements.
He might still have been had Kumara and Nuwan Pradeep not been injured. But the selectors wanted to give one final chance to the veteran. Earlier, Sri Lanka Cricket President Thilanga Sumathipala had said that playing domestic tournaments was vital for Malinga to be considered for selection.
“The selectors wanted him back, and he has to play domestic cricket according to them,” Sumathipala had said in May. “We’re playing our white-ball tournament, and 50-over and T20. I’m sure before the next international engagement which is South Africa and then the Asia Cup and so forth, he needs to play T20 games and 50 overs. If Lasith is not playing a domestic tournament, the selectors will have to make a call.”
Malinga put in the time and despite the extra baggage around his belly, the pace improved, the rhythm returned and the yorker and slower ball were back to being at its beastly best. The familiar yellow locks on his hair might have been cut shorter but everything else about Malinga remained quite familiar in the inaugural match of the Asia Cup.
Sending back Liton Das early, Malinga sent shivers down the spine of Bangladesh fans by cleaning up Shakib-al-Hasan with an inswinging yorker. The bat swished wishfully in the air and the ball swung back in eluding the bat and crashing into the stumps. Two in two and Malinga was well and truly back. He might have had two more in the next over had his fielder not put down a catch or he himself hadn’t overstepped.
His first spell read 4-1-8-2, economical, penetrative and left you wanting more. The hunger of the lion was evident for all to see and it could have ended with four wickets already but he was prepared to wait for glory. When Mohammad Mithun and Mushfiqur Rahim took the Lankans on a rollercoaster ride with a stunning fightback – a gritty, yet positive 100-run stand – Malinga returned to break the pair as though it were written in the stars.
Champaka Ramanayake, Malinga’s coach since 17, had once said on the Lankan seamer, “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.”
That’s all Angelo Mathews, the Lankan skipper, had to do on Saturday. Malinga had a pretty clear plan chalked out and he had realised Mithun was freeing his arms to anything fuller. The length shortened a touch, not evidently, yet enough to fool Mithun’s instincts. The top-edge rested in the hands of the keeper and the partnership gave Lanka a stranglehold in the game with it quietly slipping away.
As though to establish that he was well and truly back, Malinga went on to bounce Mossadek Hossain in his next over and grabbed a fourth. This wasn’t the Malinga that missed chances in the field or bowled unintentionally slow full tosses when aiming for a full-tilt yorker a year back.
This was the Malinga, sans the big bouncy hair, doing exactly what he did in his prime. Lanka might have floundered one another time but the man they recalled to give their pathetic recent results a boost did all that was asked of him and more. It might be a tad early to say he has sealed his spot in the World Cup squad but this is one firm step forward.