So Long Lasith Malinga, the Oddball of Cricket

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So Long Lasith Malinga, the Oddball of Cricket

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

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f all the sights in cricket, few rival the riveting spectacle of a fast bowler in full flow. The best of them move with a predatory grace, a sharp sprint followed by a final pounce that delivers the killing blow, almost like a big cat on the hunt. There’s a smooth quality to the way they operate that makes you want to emulate them. I remember my school cricket coach telling me to observe Brett Lee’s action and try and incorporate that fluidity into my own bowling. A breezy run-up ending in a clean leap, the ball leaving the hand when the arm was straight upright, with the head always pointed at the stumps; that’s how I always believed fast bowlers should bowl. And then I saw Lasith Malinga.

If the Aussie Brett Lee’s action evoked a cheetah hunting on the savannah, Sri Lankan Malinga’s was more like a bull in a china shop. Here was a bowler who didn’t so much run to the crease as charge at it. When delivering the ball, the standard leap is replaced by him cocking his arm back, almost as if in preparation to throw a punch. And that final delivery. Until I saw Malinga bowl, I’d never seen anything like it. Most fast bowlers release the ball from overhead, putting their backs and shoulders into generating pace. But Malinga’s arm whips around like a slingshot, not perpendicular but nearly parallel to his shoulder, sending the ball on a much lower trajectory but generating serious pace. It’s not pretty, and when I first saw it, I hated it. “Slinga Malinga” was the antithesis of everything I thought a fast bowler should be. But my opinions are immaterial, because in a career spanning 15 years, Malinga rose to the top of international cricket’s order and broke the mould of fast bowling forever.

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“Slinga Malinga” was the antithesis of everything I thought a fast bowler should be.

LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP/Getty Images

Today, Sri Lanka begin a three-match ODI series against Bangladesh. The first match is of unique importance because it will be Malinga’s retirement game. He stepped away from Test cricket, the longest format, in 2011 in order to prolong his ODI and T20 careers. Though he still remains available for selection in T20, the fact that he is calling time on his ODI career indicates that he is about to start winding down his time as an active player. In this year’s edition of the IPL, he fulfilled double duty as Mumbai Indians’ strike bowler as well as the team’s bowling coach. These are signs that he is about to put his arm-slinging days behind him, and when he does, he will do so leaving behind an undeniable legacy.

Malinga’s legacy isn’t one that you measure in records or statistics, though he doesn’t have any shortage of those. Let’s just quickly get those out of the way, shall we? No one except for Malinga has taken four wickets in four consecutive balls. We have the term hat-trick, but what he accomplished against South Africa in the 2007 World Cup exceeds even the bounds of cricket’s expansive lexicon. After Sri Lankan legends Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan, Malinga is the nation’s third-highest wicket-taker in the ODI format, and the highest wicket-taker for Sri Lanka in T20 internationals. In the IPL, playing in Mumbai Indians colours since 2009, Malinga holds the record for most wickets by a bowler with 170. But the impressive credentials on his resumé do not define Malinga. What he will be remembered for is redefining what a fast bowler could be in an era where cricket itself was undergoing tectonic changes.

After Sri Lankan legends Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan, Malinga is the nation’s third-highest wicket-taker in the ODI format, and the highest wicket-taker for Sri Lanka in T20 internationals.

When Malinga first appeared on the international stage in 2004, T20 cricket was not yet a widely played format. Today, it is the biggest money-spinner in the sport. In the years since Malinga’s debut, technique and style have given way to unorthodoxy and innovation, and audience’s appetites have grown more eclectic while their attention spans have grown shorter. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Malinga was the perfect bowler for the changing landscape, and his rank of second-highest wicket-taker of all time in the T20 format is testament to that. He might have been a nightmare for purists, but the sheer spectacle that was his playing style perfectly fit the new, more exciting form of the game.

My reservations around Malinga finally melted away once he became a Mumbai Indians regular. It was in that league where he perfected the art of containing batsmen even in a format that heavily favoured them. Staples of modern limited-overs bowling, such as consistent yorkers at the death of an innings, were techniques Malinga pioneered. Jasprit Bumrah, presently the top-ranked bowler in the world and India’s pace spearhead, is feared for his ability to deliver yorkers at will, as well as for his unconventional, inscrutable bowling action. These are qualities that defined Malinga throughout his career, and it’s hardly a coincidence that Bumrah also cut his teeth as part of the MI bowling attack led by Slinga Malinga.

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In the IPL, playing in Mumbai Indians colours since 2009, Malinga holds the record for most wickets by a bowler with 170.

Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

In the years before Malinga, bowlers with odd actions like Shoaib Akhtar and Muralitharan were the subject of much scrutiny and regulation. After Malinga, it seems like there is more room for a diverse array of actions. Bumrah is one example, Pakistan’s Sohail Tanvir is another, and so are the many other owners of oddball actions whom we see cropping up in the IPL, like the little-remembered Shivil Kaushik. No matter how offensive it might seem to aesthetes, Malinga’s success has paved the way for fresh innovation in the art of bowling in a manner similar to how West Indies batsman Shivnarine Chanderpaul and his crab-like stance rewrote the rules of effective Test batting through the ’90s and early noughties.

Lasith Malinga might soon be done with cricket, but cricket will not be done with him. Forever the oddball, his influence will be felt by future players as they follow in his footsteps of finding brilliance via the unlikeliest routes. And for that, all his crimes against my notions of fast bowling technique are forgiven.

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