On any other working Friday, the toss wouldn’t have held much significance. But this was different. Lasith Malinga was playing his final ODI, and had Bangladesh batted first, which Tamim Iqbal later said they were certain to do had they won the toss, Malinga’s final 10 overs may have played out in front of a half-empty R Premadasa Stadium. Not a disaster, but certainly anti-climactic.
However, as it turned out, Bangladesh didn’t win the toss, they didn’t bat first, and as the Sri Lankan innings started to wind to a close, the fans filtering in late were even treated to a rare a Malinga batting excursion.
It hardly mattered to them that his entrance midway through the 49th over meant Sri Lanka had effectively squandered an opportunity to post a truly imposing total. The fans just wanted to see their Mali, and as he was given a King’s escort down to the field with Percy, Sri Lanka’s super fan, by his side, you could see a champion taking it all in.
“I’m really happy,” Malinga told journalists after the victory celebrations, well past midnight. “More than the wickets, I was just so happy so many people came to watch. The ground was almost completely full, and I’m really grateful for that.”
The sheer perfection of his farewell, however, won’t likely sink in till much later because in Sri Lankan cricket, retirement is rarely done right. For every Muttiah Muralitharan, Mahela Jayawardena, and Kumar Sangakkara, there’s a Chaminda Vaas, Marvan Atapattu, and Nuwan Kulasekara, stalwarts who simply retired by virtue of not being selected again, no explanations given.
But not so for Malinga, who for large parts of his career had railed against the establishment, yet managed to go out on his own terms. Even his retirement speech was not bound by traditional expectations, spanning well over 20 minutes. It was probably the longest ever given by a Sri Lankan cricketer.
As he steamed in for one final spell just after dusk set in, locks a-flowing, the crowd a sea of flashing camera lights, the floodlit Khettarama pulsed like it had done so many times before. Malinga, too, did what he has done so many times before.
Tamim, the man who had given him such a glowing tribute just a day earlier, was his first victim – done in by a quintessential Malinga toe-crusher. A late in-swinging yorker, expected and yet, paradoxically, unexpected, arrowed in towards his right toe. Tamim was on the floor no sooner than the stumps had been disturbed, only to look up and see Malinga smirking, but not with any malice, just a man, living his dream.
“Whether it’s at Sri Lanka Cricket or somewhere else, whoever solicits my help I will offer it. I’m a cricketer, what I have learnt I will pass on.”Malinga won’t be hoarding his knowledge
Soumya Sarkar was next, and like Tamim, he too was warned. The first ball was a yorker, a low rumble, that Soumya just managed to squeeze out. The second, another yorker, which he somehow managed to get bat to at the final second. Then came the third, a copy of the second, with Malinga seemingly posing the question: “I can do this all day, can you?” The sound of rattled timber, followed by the deafening roar of the crowd told you a story.
But like so many before them, they were simply caught in a Malinga time loop, their own personal Groundhog Day, where a little ball of leather is repeatedly hurled, at an impossibly low trajectory, always swinging in late – so late, it apologises first and mumbles something about traffic – straight at your toes, and before you know it, there you are, on the floor, still thinking of playing that very ball, the one you just knew was coming.
“Everyone knows that he’s going to try and york you, but there are a few deliveries you can’t really do anything about,” Tamim said to comfort himself after the game. “If you see my dismissal it swung at the last moment, what can you do about it? I tried my best. I actually thought on the third ball I defended a really nice yorker, but I think this was too good for me. You just have to put your hands up to a delivery like that.”
Indeed, knowing it’s coming and dealing with it are two entirely different things. Of course Tamim knew it was coming, as did Soumya, as did the entire stadium; Malinga had gone so far as to telegraph it over the course of an entire career, but yet here we were again.
In all fairness though, the yorker is a fantastic delivery; when executed correctly, it negates as many of cricket’s variables as possible. And Malinga has undoubtedly been its finest ever exponent.
Batting friendly pitch? No fuss. Fielders likely to drop catches? Not a problem. Ball too old? Cool beans. Through the yorker, Malinga has managed to somehow narrow the game down to its core set of elements – batsman against bowler, rendering everything else irrelevant. And when that happens, you’re playing by his rules.
“I’m now quite a veteran cricketer, and as such my deliveries aren’t as fast as they used to be,” Malinga said. “So because of the lack of speed, whatever talent I have has reduced quite a bit these days. But nevertheless I really only have one way of taking wickets.
“Whether it’s Sanath Jayasuriya at the other end, or the batsmen that played today, a left hander or right hander, whoever, there’s only one way I can dismiss them. And so that’s what I try. No matter how many videos I see of them getting dismissed in a variety of ways, I only have one way of getting it done. So I do what I know best.”
“My deliveries aren’t as fast as they used to be. Because of the lack of speed, whatever talent I have has reduced quite a bit these days. But nevertheless I really only have one way of taking wickets.”Malinga disarmingly sums up his bowling, and his yorkers
But like so many things in sport, such feats are much easier said than done, and the margins are oh so fine. Over pitch and it’s a full toss, don’t pitch it full enough and you’re now in half-volley territory. There’s a reason many bowlers don’t even try it unless it’s in the last few overs, where getting dispatched to the boundary is finally a risk deemed worth taking. That is unless you’re Malinga obviously, in which case it’s quite preposterously verging on a stock delivery.
Asked for his secret after the game, there was that sheepish grin we’ve seen so many times before. “Hard work and patience, that’s more than enough,” he responded before knowingly adding as an afterthought: “In the game, not outside.”
For Malinga though, his legacy is not yet set in stone. Yes, he will be forever remembered as an all-time great, but he feels he still has more to give back to the game.
“Through the many years of experience that I have playing for Sri Lanka, and in the IPL, my strength has been being able to pass on the knowledge I have in terms of developing skillsets, and executing your skills consistently.
“Everyone has some level of skill, but they don’t know how to consistently repeat and harness that skill. If the person with a certain skill doesn’t know how to repeat it, then no matter how talented they are, they won’t be able to utilise it successfully.
“If you can consistently repeat a skill, that in itself is a talent. And if you have both the skill and talent, then you can use things like video analysis to recognise certain situations and improve in them.
“So whether it’s at Sri Lanka Cricket or somewhere else, whoever solicits my help I will offer it. I’m a cricketer, what I have learnt I will pass on, I have no need to keep that information to myself.”
This desire to help was encapsulated perfectly in the 12th over, when the young Lahiru Kumara was bowling to Mahmadullah, and Malinga fielding at third man sensed an opportunity.
“He’s still an inexperienced player, and so even though he’s talented even he doesn’t sometimes know what his best options are. So that’s why when I was at third man, I asked Wanindu [Hasaranga] to come there, and I went to mid-off. This was so that I could help Kumara – because I felt he might be able to use my advice in that situation – and so I explained to him what the trap was.”
That trap was to bowl a quick bouncer just wide enough to allow Mahmadullah to target the third man fence, but not so wide that he would be able to stretch his arms and swing it away for six. Kumara executed perfectly, and Hasaranga took an easy catch in the deep.
“Thankfully it worked. Like that I always look to impart whatever knowledge I can on the younger players. What is the trap, how do certain players behave, what to do in certain situations, these are little things I try and teach them.”