Lasith Malinga’s nadir – Is the clock ticking for the veteran?

Lasith Malinga celebrates the wicket of Ahmed Shahzad with Sri Lanka teammates during the 1stT20I against Pakistan

The Sri Lankan team once had a lion in their team; the lion that swaggered around its territory, making the accidental trespasser cringe with fear; the lion whose roar itself pounded the hearts of prospective visitors with sheer fear and made them quiver with terror. So many battles did it win entirely of its own.

Now that the lion has become old, it has an ailing body. It’s knee has been degenerating for a long time – a snag willfully obscured to slake the lust for blood. Its ankle has undergone a reparative surgery. His body has lost shape, thanks to the many pain killers that found their way into his veins. To top everything off, the experienced veterans in the herd have now left the pack.

It has a nation to guard, cubs to nurture, a pride to protect, enemies to hunt, revilers to counter, games to be won and above else his own body to look after. The alpha lion, on whom once the entire pride depended, now has to take refuge by the sides of the cubs for its own safety. It is no more vigil, no more sharp and no more quick. As it is the case with any veteran, age is taking its toll on him.

The renegade from the village of Rathgama has been Sri Lanka’s mainstay in bowling to close to a decade. There were times when there was only one man in the field who could win it for Sri Lanka, and he seldom disappointed. Gone are the times when 6 runs off the last over seemed too many off him. Now, even 15 look too less.

Landing a proper yorker is an onerous task. A good yorker lands just underneath the bat. an inch shorter it becomes a half volley; an inch fuller it turns out to be a full toss. It would be erroneous to say that Malinga was an expert at landing the ball at the perfect yorker length. He was indeed better than most, if not better than everyone else to have rolled their arm over in cricket.

The yorkers that have become ineffective

So, what makes a yorker lethal? Malinga’s yorkers have troubled the batsmen in the past but not many hit the base of the stumps or the toe of the shoes. Yet, they were unplayable. Because they came at an angle that was quirky and a pace that was sparky. The batsmen seldom had time to budge, and hence produced a rooted-to-the-crease-prod to save the stumps.

When a ball travels at 145kmph, not even the best can make that forward or backward movement to perform the impossibly quick movement. Hence, even full tosses got him wickets; even half volleys thudded into pads. It is the pace that makes a yorker lethal.

Injury hit Malinga first in 2007. Before that his arm could hurl leather at 150kmph. With injury his pace dropped. Hence, he atoned pace for accuracy. But still he had enough to trouble the big names. He picked up two hat tricks bowling at the pace of around 140.

Then came Virat Kohli, with his open stanced flicks to deep fine leg in 2012. Big bats, two new balls and less dense outfields – the world used the toe of the bats and the clout of the wrists to tackle Malinga. Not many could execute it to perfection at that pace, though. Yet, the veteran knew he had to adapt. Hence came the wide yorker ploys that fired flaks at the helicopter to make it crash in the final of WT20 in 2014. Every time, destiny threw a challenge at him, he found a way.

Once again an injury hit him. This time a little below his knee, on his ankle. His pace dropped; accuracy dwindled. He realized it cannot be left to too late and that prompt attendance was paramount. He flew to Australia, where the medics cut open his ankle to make his motors the way they should be.

He returned to cricket after months of lay off with an attenuated pace and a diminishing accuracy. Though the effectors of his body could not execute what his motor cortex wanted, his astute tactics and shrewd thinking made him the highest wicket-taker for his side.

The dropping pace

There was a time when Malinga’s slower balls would clock 135kmph. Now that’s the fastest he bowls. A ball at 145kmph, whether it is a half-volley or a low full toss, is tough to handle. Time would be hardly suffice to avert the ball from the stumps. Now, even if he manages to land the perfect yorker, batsmen seem to have enough time to move forward/backward- depending on his preferred length- and flick the ball to the leg side boundary. Rewind to 2011, batsmen never even had time to snap their wrists.

The bouncer was another glinting weapon in his arsenal. Strung together by the yorkers were those soaring throat balls. In 2012, when Pakistan needed 76 off 78 balls with 8 wickets remaining, Malinga bowled three off those throat balls at Umar Akmal after picking up Misbah’s wicket. That rattled the visitors, fissured their momentum, kick started Sri Lanka’s and initiated the famous Pakistani collapse. Sri Lanka went on to win the match by 44 runs.

His slower balls have become inane too, primarily because he now bowls at the pace of his slower balls. Batsmen seem to have an eternity to play his faster balls and they have even more time to read his slower ones. Without those quick 140kmph deliveries, batsmen no more need to rush into a shot early, a phenomenon which he exploited with his slow dipping balls.

His length deliveries, when bowled with the new ball usually swung away, often making the batsmen edge to slip. Now, even though those balls still swing, at his pace, they allow batsmen to sit back and carve over cover region.

Two new balls in ODIs can be cited as a reason for the lack of reverse swing, but then again would his pace be decent enough to generate it? Rule changes, injuries and a degenerating body- you ought to agree that destiny has conspired against him. “Destiny says it all”, says a tattoo in his arm. Perhaps, it was written somewhere, that one day this man will have to yield to the whims and fancies of destiny.

“Injuries come and go, but I have to stick to what has got me wickets. I am a wicket-taking bowler and I can’t comprise on pace”, said Malinga before becoming Man of the Match in Muralitharan’s last Test. He has given in to injuries; he has compromised pace. He is no more a wicket-taker and Sri Lanka can’t see him being reduced to a stock bowler, for we already know the pain of seeing once a great being dismantled into an amateur medium pacer in the form of Chaminda Vass.

10 years from now on, what we want to remember is those searing Yorkers, definitely not those long hops that now disappear into the square leg boundary or those half-volleys that soar into cow corner.

“I believe in myself. I have got speed”, reads another tattoo. Still, the self-confidence is relatively intact. But speed? It’s a relic of the bygone era, when the captain could hand over the ball to Malinga and feel relaxed, as relaxed as listening to Beethoven’s sonatas.

Victory in his hand felt secured, as secure as a baby in her dad’s arms. He seldom lost us matches in the last over, so much so, that I remember the only instance when he bowled poorly to hand us a defeat – against New Zealand in the opening game of WT20, 2010, he bowled a length ball which Nathan McCullum deposited over long off, to help his team snatch a win.

Why it is the right time for him to retire

“I am the reason for the defeat. I will train hard in the next few months. If I don’t get back to rhythm, I’ll have to take a call on my future”, lamented Malinga after a second indifferent outing. Whatever he does, though he might get back his accuracy, his pace will never re-emerge. And without pace he will always be a toothless lion.

But you can never confidently slap away a chance of Malinga’s revival. When his knee suffered a degenerative condition in 2007, people suspected whether he could even walk. But he came back; came back and picked yet another World Cup hat-trick, sent Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag back to the pavilion in the 2011 World Cup final and dazed the Australian side with his third international hat-trick.

In the final of the WT20 in 2012, Malinga gave away so many runs that his side lost. Marlon Samuels pummeled five of his balls out of the ground. 2 years later, the same Malinga would give away only eight runs to both Kohli and Dhoni in his two overs at the death to truncate India’s innings to a paltry 130.

As he has already done, Malinga might make a strong comeback and lead the Sri Lankan bowling attack again as he has ever done. But, to be realistic, he then had the luxury of a healthier body and a brisker pace, which he is bereft of now.

He was the best ever shorter format bowler I have ever seen. During an era when batsmen made balls fly at will, the gun slinger made the bails fly. When bowlers were cowed by batsmen, he made batsmen prostrate in front of him. He is not yet done. He still has some cricket left in his tank. But the time is right for him to call it a day. He should quit as one of the most feared bowlers, not as someone who used to wreck havocked during his heydays.

The lion has become old. It is nor more swift nor nimble. It is hurting to see the cubs having to fight to save the lion. Memories of the fag end of someone’s career should not adulterate the overall experience. We already had it with Sanath Jayasuriya. It is the right time for the lion- the pride of Lanka, to quit and sit among others in the hall of fame.

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