Lasith Malinga is one of the greatest ever bowlers in the limited-overs game. The man with the streaked curly mops, yorkers to die for and a change of pace that has repeatedly flummoxed the best is an unquestioned legend who is clearly on his last legs, the end of his international career perhaps even more imminent than many of us believe.
Malinga at his ferocious best was quite a sight. A little kiss on the cricket ball later, he would power through his run-up, gather his complaining body into a coil of mass and velocity and cunning and craft, and deliver the little orb with telling finality. His right hand almost parallel to the turf at the point of delivery, the awkwardness of his perfectly legal action and his ability to mix things up without the slightest hint made Malinga-watching a fascinating proposition. He was far from poetry in motion but he was lethal. He was deadly devastating. Mean as hell. But without malice.
When the batsman managed to keep him out by the skin of his teeth, Malinga would smile. When the ball skewed off inside edge or outside and thudded into the boundary boards, Malinga would smile. And, when men like Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli read him beautifully and systematically took him apart, Malinga would smile. He just enjoyed the battle between bat and ball, he loved the smell of a contest, the thrust and parry of a fight, the result almost immaterial.
What’s with you, Kieron? How could you stoop to such a low? And, how do you realistically expect to be respected if, as a senior player, this is how you behave? Why would Evin Lewis ever give you the time of day again? Oh wait, and what will the dynamics be when you share the dressing-room with him shortly as teammates in the Windies T20I team?
Lasith Malinga isn’t done yet, so why the past tense? Maybe because a lot of the enjoyment has gone out the window – our enjoyment of his quickly diminishing craft, and probably even his own enjoyment of the international game within the contours of a team that knows not where its next victory lies.
He is still only 34, but he is a weary, tired, very old 34. A chronic knee injury has been his constant companion for nearly a decade now, forcing him to abandon the more demanding cauldron of the Test format which he felt was imposing unrealistic demands on his frail body. Occasionally, he turns up and turns the clock back, bowling almost like the Malinga of old, fearsome and wicked. But for the most part, he is operating on somewhat fading memory, the awe and reverence that once occupied the mind-space of batsmen replaced by a realisation that the Malinga of today offers a viable scoring option, that there is more to facing up to him than mere survival.
His diminishing efficacy is evidenced by returns of just seven wickets in his last ten One-Day Internationals, all at home, five each against Zimbabwe and India. While he was passable, at best, against the African nation, he was taken to the cleaners by the dominant Indian batsmen over the last fortnight. He only took three wickets in those five matches, his economy an unflattering 6.23, his average a humongous 81, his strike-rate an unMalinga-like 78. Who is this guy who looks like the Slinga, but doesn’t smile so much like him anymore, and most certainly doesn’t bowl like him for the most part?
There was just one reason for Malinga to look back at the India series with any degree of affection. A little over a week back, he became the fourth Sri Lankan to pick up 300 ODI wickets, and the fifth fastest of all time to reach that milestone. It came in his 203rd match, and in his first as Sri Lanka’s ODI skipper. It was in the fitness of things that his 300th ODI victim wasn’t just anyone; ideally, Malinga would have loved to have produced a trademark yorker to dismiss and embarrass the batsman, but he will gladly settle for having Kohli as No. 300, even if it was to a catch at sweeper cover after the Indian captain had blitzed his way to 131 from a mere 96 deliveries.
The arms went up in celebration, the broad grin surfaced dramatically, and the crowd chanted ‘Maa-linga, Maa-linga’. For all his recent travails, he is still the peoples’ hero; there is a buzz even in the sparse stands at various venues in Sri Lanka when he lines the batsman up, a sense of anticipation which overwhelms the reality that he is no more the lethal practitioner of white-ball bowling that he once was.
As Kohli departed after a double-century stand, his partner in crime during that association sauntered across to Malinga, and enveloped him in a warm, appreciative embrace. It wasn’t a cursory shake of the hand as has become somewhat customary, but instead a heartfelt gesture of respect and admiration. That it came from Rohit Sharma was no surprise, for the Slinga has been a massive influence in Mumbai Indians’ march to three Indian Premier League titles in the last six years since Rohit took over as captain from Ricky Ponting.
When the batsman managed to keep him out by the skin of his teeth, Malinga would smile. When the ball skewed off inside edge or outside and thudded into the boundary boards, Malinga would smile. And, when men like Dhoni and Kohli read him beautifully and systematically took him apart, Malinga would smile.
So, Indian and Sri Lankan players have historically shared a wonderful relationship, the occasional pinprick notwithstanding. So, Rohit and Malinga have great rapport, the captain and his go-to man, the leader and his incisive enforcer. So, sport is about appreciation and acknowledgement and respect and approbation. So?
So, no one seemed to have told Kieron Pollard that. A couple of days after this Rohit-Malinga exchange, Pollard produced a moment of madness that did little to edify the image of cricket as the gentleman’s game, even as it cast the giant Trinidadian in extremely poor light. The stage was the Caribbean Premier League, the setting Bridgetown, the result foregone. Evin Lewis had sent the Barbados Tridents bowlers on a hiding to nothing, making a target of 129 appear even more miniscule.
Lewis had blitzed to 97 off a mere 32 deliveries when St Kitts and Nevis Patriots drew level with Barbados’ 128. The left-hand opener was on track to produce the first CPL century, and the second fastest T20 of all time, when Pollard decided to take things into his own hands. A deliberate no-ball brought up the winning runs and left a bemused, disappointed and aghast Lewis stranded on 97. How he managed a smile when Pollard, unashamedly and unabashedly, went to shake his hand, only Lewis can tell us. Though his expression said more than a million words could have.
What’s with you, Kieron? How could you stoop to such a low? And, how do you realistically expect to be respected if, as a senior player, this is how you behave? Why would Evin Lewis ever give you the time of day again? Oh wait, and what will the dynamics be when you share the dressing-room with him shortly as teammates in the Windies Twenty20 International team? Suraj Randiv paid a heavy price for a similarly over-smart infringement to deny Virender Sehwag in an ODI in Dambulla in 2010. Why should Pollard be treated differently?
I wonder if Rohit and Malinga discussed the antics of their Mumbai Indians teammate when they met after the distasteful Pollard reprisal of Randiv. And I wonder what they made if it all. Most of all, I wonder if anyone, anyone at all, has since told Pollard to his face, “You are a bit of a disgrace, you know.”