Andrew Fidel Fernando, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, 2 May 2017, where the title runs “Malinga’s fitness in focus for Sri Lanka”
Early signs suggest Lasith Malinga will be fit enough to bowl ten overs per match by the time the Champions Trophy rolls around, according to Sri Lanka’s head coach Graham Ford, though he also hinted there was a possibility Malinga could play even if not quite fully fit. Effectively, the feeling in the Sri Lanka camp seems to be this: they need Malinga. They need him bad.
Malinga’s returns in the 2017 IPL so far – a tournament he has historically dominated – have been mixed. He has claimed wickets in most matches, but has also been expensive at times, most notably against Kings XI Punjab, against whom he conceded 58 runs. But he does seem to be getting through his four overs comfortably, and both SLC and Sri Lanka’s coaching staff are adamant that his workload is gradually being increased at training.
Fortuitously, Malinga’s coach at Mumbai Indians happens to be Mahela Jayawardene, who, having captained Malinga, will understand at what rate the bowler’s fitness will have to progress if he is to be ready for the Champions Trophy. Malinga has not played an ODI since November 2015, thanks to various leg injuries, but he had made a return to international T20s against Australia in February, following a year-long layoff.
“I’m really hoping that he’s going to be 100% fit,” Ford said of Malinga. “Before he left for the IPL, some of the work that he was putting in gave me great confidence. I’m not at all looking at the possibility that he might be half-fit. All the reports I’ve had is that he’s going really well. I’ve spoken to Mahela a couple of times, and when Mumbai left him out for one game I quickly got hold of Mahela wondering if there was something wrong. He said there’s nothing wrong with him, but that the programme is so hectic that they have plans to win the competition and they need him to go the whole way through. Rest time is important. ”
“All the indications are that he’s going to be able to give us something special. What I saw of his attitude is that he’s missed international cricket and missed doing wonderful things for Sri Lankan cricket. As time runs out on his career, he’s very determined to make an impact on this Champions Trophy.”
Sri Lanka have sorely missed Malinga’s bowling in their limited-overs cricket, having bombed at last year’s World T20 without him, and having been mostly miserable in ODIs in the past year. They had won a tri-series in Zimbabwe against two sides who did not qualify for the Champions Trophy, but were winless in ODIs on tours of England and South Africa. It is hoped Malinga’s return can help give the attack a little more menace.
Malinga returned to international cricket during the T20I series against Australia in February © Associated Press
“I think he’s very determined to really make an impact,” Ford said. “Even if he’s not giving us the full ten overs, he is a class act in setting that tone up front and finishing the innings off. If we can have the privilege of using him in those scenarios, that’s going to stand us in good stead.”
One of Sri Lanka’s recent shortcomings in the ODI format has been their death bowling, and Ford reflected that Sri Lanka have largely been weak in this area because they had not managed to groom a death bowler to take over from the waning seniors.
“For a long, long time we relied on the genius of Malinga at the death, and we also had Nuwan Kulasekara, who was a really good partner,” Ford said. “Those two looked after the death on many an occasion. I’ve had the privilege of sitting in the dressing room knowing that even though the opposition might be ahead of the rate, we’ve got these two really good death bowlers to finish off. That was always a comforting feeling.
“Unfortunately, no young guys really got the experience of doing that job. Suddenly we’ve got some young guys doing that job, and it’s not an easy job. Experience is important in being able to handle the pressure, and of course do a lot of hard work on your skills so that you can handle the pressure easier. I think maybe, in a way, because those guys knew they were never going to be asked to do it because we had the two experts doing it, they didn’t have to work very hard on those skills. It’s been a new experience for some of them. They’re getting a heck of a lot better. In modern-day cricket you probably need three or four that can execute those skills at the end.”
Most of the Champions Trophy squad begin their training in Colombo over the next few days, before captain Angelo Mathew joins them on May 10 – when they head to a training camp in Pallekele. Malinga will be allowed to stay on at the IPL and work on his fitness remotely – SLC president Thilanga Sumathipala stating that him being involved in competitive matches was better for Malinga than joining the rest of the team at the camp.
Sri Lanka have also hired fast Allan Donald as a fast bowling consultant for the Champions Trophy. Donald has arrived on the island and will begin his work with the team over the next few days.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando