Malinga is set for his fourth World Cup – ready to scrap one more time, to see if some juice remains in that sling ©Cricbuzz
Lasith Malinga is done with his customary spell at the nets and heads out to get himself a bottle of water. Most of his teammates have retired into the pavilion at the Sophia Gardens Stadium after two hours of slinging, catching or hitting a cricket ball. Angelo Mathews hangs back to receive a round of throw downs on one of the nets, as does Suranga Lakmal, who isn’t doing anything in particular.
The bottle of water, it turns out, is not reward for a hard day’s work. Well not yet. Malinga finds himself an empty net between two occupied ones, marks his run-up and at the top of the mark, places the bottle. A member of the Sri Lankan support staff brings out a shoe and puts it at the popping crease on the other end. We know what happens next.
Except that it doesn’t. The natural order is disrupted. There are signs. A butterfly has flapped its wings somewhere and after four days, there’s sunshine instead of rain in Cardiff. Because nothing else, not certainly the mundane sporting ideas of fatigue, age or simply an average day at the office can explain what follows.
Ball 1: Full toss outside off stump
Ball 2: Length ball on middle
Ball 3: Fuller on middle stump, but not full enough
Ball 4: Full ball on off-stump, again driveable
Ball 5: Length ball on middle stump
It’s absurd. It’s bemusing.
Each time, Malinga walks back to the bottle, turns around and tries again. When he returns after the sixth ball, he reaches out for the water in the bottle, but doesn’t bend enough to actually lift the bottle off the ground. He will not be hidden in plain sight at short fine-leg this World Cup. It takes him a second attempt to take a sip. The soul is willing, but the body, not as much. The sole at the other end, meanwhile, remains untouched. So he tries again.
He runs his finger over this ball and it lands well short of the shoe and goes over the stumps harmlessly. What Shardul Thakur would have given to face this ball earlier in the month. The next one is a full toss that hits half way up the stumps. The ninth ball finally hits the shoe flush, and makes a support staff member go “Oooooh”. Malinga is satisfied but doesn’t want to pack it up on a high. He moves the shoe in line with the leg-stump now and begins with a wide.
Two days out from his fourth and final World Cup campaign, Malinga bowled almost five overs at a stretch at the end of a session in which he’d already sent down considerable amount of deliveries. He was out there by himself, relentlessly seeking summon-at-will properties for an art form that he now goes around teaching pupils from opposition teams. He hit the shoe only twice. His final ball grazed the shoe laces before knocking the leg stump out.
After he’d run the tank dry to the last drop, Malinga returned to the top of his run-up, by the water bottle, and plonked himself on the grass. After a while he collapsed to his side and barely moved even when a stray ball went hit past him.
There he lay, on an imaginary hammock, staring into the empty net ahead and perhaps, even beyond.
He, with the two World Cup hat-tricks to his name, may have had a fairly ordinary hit-the-boot session, but he will never be ordinary. The geometry of his deliveries may need more course-corrections than usual but the batsman at the other end still plays the history and not the form.
“Stay in the present,” he may say in press conferences, but perhaps the past is the shield he must hold on to. For Sri Lanka, with Malinga in their ranks, have never entered a World Cup campaign with lower expectations. In fact, most see them even finishing behind Afghanistan and Bangladesh and at the bottom of the table, what with the perpetual state of chaos in their ranks.
But there remains fleeting hope, even among those who consider him an IPL sell-out, that perhaps Malinga can save them from complete ignominy.
“We’ve lost this match unless you do something special,” Mahela Jayawardene had famously told Malinga, before the man with the golden curls knocked out Pollock, Hall, Kallis and Ntini off four balls to make Sri Lanka dream the impossible in Guyana 2007. How many future captains may have tapped into that legend? Dimuth Karunaratne certainly will require it at some point, that is assuming he’s not made the request for Malinga’s overtime already.
It’s been a very interesting final lap for one of the game’s finest, one that actually began as a bowling coach for Mumbai Indians in 2018. Twelve months later, Malinga had built enough fitness to bowl his franchise to the title win. Between the two IPL gigs, the vagaries of Sri Lankan cricket handed him the ODI captaincy and then snatched it away just as quickly. He contemplated quitting when Asantha de Mel had made his mind on the Karunaratne appointment, but withheld making any impulsive move at least until the World Cup.
And as if to underscore his commitment for the Sri Lankan cause, he jetted straight out of Mumbai after an IPL game and to Kandy for a Super Provincial One-Day tournament game and picked up 7 for 49. He flew back to Mumbai when his work was done, a statement was made.
Which brings him to England for a World Cup opener once again. Not many saw it coming when Brendon McCullum’s side took Malinga, minus his gallop, for 84 in the opening clash of the 2015 World Cup. Yet here he is, ready to scrap one more time, to see if some juice remains in that sling.
The great race is nearly run. All that’s left is a final bend and the home stretch. Even one of cricket’s greatest non-conformists deserves a fitting finish.