This is the story of an arm that functioned almost independent of a body long out of shape and wrecked with chronic injuries. With a slinging bowling action that prompted batsmen to ask umpires to change the colour of their trousers since the ball was getting lost in its background, Lasith Malinga wasn’t conventional at the slightest. He never really cared when World Cup winning captain Arjuna Ranatunga made public his disapproval of Malinga’s blonde-dyed curls. Public opinion turned for the worse a few years later when the media painted him as a thankless opportunist ready to give up country for club when the Mumbai Indians were ready to splurge on him in the Indian Premier League. By then, Malinga had found his calling more by default than design. Bowling in Tests was not his cup of tea, not while his knees and ankles kept buckling under the pressure of a unique but exacting action. So he got down to perfecting himself as a white-ball operator, relying on the trifecta of bouncer, the slower ball and the yorker. He ended being a legend of the game, extending his white-ball career by 10 years after playing his last Test in 2010.
At the heart of Malinga’s success is an action that played its part in agitating batsmen. But what really propelled him to fame was the amount of swing he could manufacture with the older ball. His reverse swing too was radical for its times, with the seam releasing almost horizontal to the pitch while others normally had the seam pointed towards slips. And then, there was his pace. Once upon a time Malinga meant rip roaring yorkers in the slog overs with batsmen keeling over to keep their balance. Along with bringing yorkers back in vogue, it was Malinga who made death-overs bowling a skill many have longed to perfect. But the truly astonishing part of Malinga’s career is how he managed to stay relevant despite losing pace and adding a few kilos.
This is where he started working on variations of yorker. There are broadly two. First is the excruciatingly slower version, one that inevitably triggers the batsman to come down on the ball quicker than anticipated. Shuffle too much across the stumps and you are plumb leg-before, make too much space to free the arms and risk losing your stumps. What makes the variation more confounding is when it lands on the full. Batsmen’s eyes pop at such balls but Malinga evokes no such elation. These are sneaky deliveries, leaving the hand with a high trajectory but dipping too suddenly on the batsman for him to bring his bat down. From Sachin Tendulkar to Shane Watson, this delivery has fetched Malinga wickets in heaps.
And then there is the wide yorker that deserves more credit purely because of Malinga’s ability to keep it consistently fuller than a half-volley and not concede a wide. Perfecting yorkers isn’t easy. It took Malinga hundreds of hours practising bowling at a pair of shoes glued in front of the popping crease. To hit the blockhole several stumps away from the shoes needs that much extra discipline. Malinga used it sparingly. But when he did, it wreaked havoc. Turn back the clock to the 2014 World T20 final in Dhaka when at 123/3 after 19 overs, India were six balls away from throwing away the advantage of a good start. On strike was MS Dhoni, with Virat Kohli at the other end. Malinga slipped in a full and wide delivery, but Dhoni couldn’t get his bat on it. Next ball, a wide. The one after it was more accurate and Dhoni missed again. Next ball, the same. Fourth ball: a full-blooded yorker that Dhoni managed to push towards midwicket for two. Fifth ball: so full and wide, Dhoni could only dig it out for a single. Kohli, on 77, finally got strike on the last ball but Malinga unleashed another yorker. Six legitimate deliveries in the last over of a World Cup final, all of them yorkers. It was Malinga’s way of telling people you don’t need to take wickets to be a successful T20 bowler. That was his USP. Not many had cracked the T20 code as early as Malinga. It only enhanced his legacy.
But in a world parallel to all this success was the existential crisis Malinga was often subjected to because of news coming from Sri Lanka—a hothead who didn’t get along with most of the top brass, slamming his teammates and taking potshots at players and coaches who he claimed in explosive interviews didn’t want him in the dressing room. Looming over all this was the all-pervasive question of where his loyalty truly lied, with Sri Lanka or Mumbai Indians. His IPL exploits is one of the reasons why this question never died a natural death—170 wickets (the highest by any bowler) with an economy of 7.14 and a strike rate of 16.61, rarely has anyone eclipsed Malinga when he was in his prime. He came to the IPL in a hurry to become the best, becoming the first to 100 wickets, and then 150 while delivering some of the most economical death overs of all time. And then there was a crazy sequence of tournament economies between 2009 and 2014—6.3, 7.02, 5.95, 6.3, 7.16 and 6.45 that no one could match. But his biggest contribution to Mumbai Indians was taking Jasprit Bumrah under his wings.
Sri Lanka were not so fortunate, partly because they have not produced a limited-overs bowler of Malinga’s caliber and partly because they never gave him the mandate to create something out of the depleting ranks after the greats had retired. His leadership remains unexplored territory even though Malinga’s brief captaincy went a long way in helping Sri Lanka win the 2014 World Twenty20, their last ICC trophy. What remained constant though was how Malinga came out of his hiatuses to give Sri Lanka hope, the 2019 World Cup being the final pit stop of this enduring legacy as he bamboozled Jonny Bairstow, James Vince, Joe Root and Jos Buttler to orchestrate the biggest upset of the tournament at Headingley. In the penultimate year of his career, Malinga again did what he did all his life—make the batsman look like a dolt.
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