Leeds, July 5: He bears an uncanny resemblance to the great man. He walks and talks like him. And, once in a while, he turns the clock back and even bowls like him. Oh wait, he is him!
To call Lasith Malinga a pale shadow of his majestic, destructive self will be utterly disrespectful to a man still in control of his craft, though by his own admission, he doesn’t have the power anymore to hustle batsmen and beat them for pace. And yet, while the aura of the past might have dissipated and the fear factor evaporated, the 35-year-old continues to be a handful.
He hasn’t lost the art of bemusing batsmen with his vast bag of tricks. The screaming yorkers might come at a more friendly 130-odd kmph instead of the early 140s when he was in his prime, thundering down the turf and hurling missiles from a round-armish action that attracted the moniker 'Slinga Malinga’. But even though batsmen know what is coming at them, they don’t always have the answer to the obvious question.
The burgeoning midriff is an anachronism in modern-day sport; Malinga could so easily be the indulgent, indulging uncle were it not for the fact that he can still knock poles over and leave batsmen looking embarrassed and sheepish with his bewildering concoction of skill and guile.
And he isn’t done yet. He isn’t sure what the 50-over format future holds for him – from all accounts, he is keen on a farewell One-Day International at home -- but is determined to take Sri Lanka to the next T20 World Cup, in Australia late next year. Sri Lanka have to come through the qualifiers to make the tournament proper; the man with 97 Twenty20 International wickets and 378 sticks in all T20s wants to help his country tick that box.
“We have to play the 2020 T20 World Cup qualifying round. It is very crucial for us to play in the T20 World Cup,” he says, stressing on the 'crucial’. “I am looking forward to playing that T20 World Cup. I don't think I will make any decision on my ODI career, however without meeting the board.”
The World Cup legend of Malinga was born when he took four wickets in as many deliveries against South Africa in Providence in 2007. Cruising at 206 for five chasing 210 for victory, the Proteas were rocked as Malinga packed off Shaun Pollock, Justin Kemp, a well-entrenced Jacques Kallis and Makhaya Ntini off successive balls, showcasing his full repertoire – two screaming yorkers, a well disguised slower ball, a furiously quick delivery outside off. South Africa somehow scrambled over the line, but that game was all about Malinga.
The veteran is well aware that while the mind might still be willing, his ageing and creaking body is no more an ally. That realization has forced him to look for other wicket-taking options, with pretty decent results, too. This World Cup alone, he has picked up 12 wickets from six outings at a strike-rate of 25.8 and an economy of 5.63. “I am too old now,” he laughs. “Still, I have tried my best to control the game. I don’t have much power to beat the batsman, so I try to control my game and control the situation. The best thing is we won against England and I got the wicket of Jos (Buttler) at a very important time, that’s the best moment for me.”
That was a trademark Malinga yorker that tailed in late and crashed into Buttler’s pads, a scalp that invigorated the Sri Lankans to a 20-run victory at Headingley, where they take on India on Saturday (July 6). In the opposition camp is a Malinga protégé who has bloomed under his wings, their association at Mumbai Indians a valuable stop in the young Indian’s learning curve.
“I am not surprised at all with his rapid rise,” Malinga says of Jasprit Bumrah’s progression to the No. 1 ODI bowler. “I have been with him since 2013 (at Mumbai Indians), He is really very hungry to learn, and he learns quickly. He also understands things really well. When you have these qualities, then anyone can become the best in the world. His rapid progress in a very short period shows Jasprit's character.”
Saturday might not herald the passing of the baton – maybe that moment is already in the past – but it’s certainly the last time the master and his one-time apprentice will be in action in the same 50-over game. Now, that’s something to look forward to.
(R Kaushik is a cricket writer who has followed the sport closely for nearly three decades, and is covering his seventh World Cup)