Headingley: Two weeks before Sri Lanka travelled to England for the World Cup, as the selectors called Lasith Malinga to inform that he had been sacked as captain and Dimuth Karunaratne will take over, he threw in the towel saying that he would call it a day. Malinga was in India at that point playing the Indian Premier League (IPL). Ex-players and teammates prompted Malinga out of retirement plans. He made himself available to have the last dig at sport’s showpiece event. On Friday, he provided the tournament’s first major upset as ninth-ranked Sri Lanka upset top-ranked England, the tournament favourites.
Defeat here would have been certain curtains for Sri Lanka. But as they have done it time and again, the former champions are hanging in there.
A few grey hairs suggest that Malinga has lost pace. Lots of it! But who cares, he still surprises batsmen with his tricks. He provides breakthroughs with the new ball, comes back for a second spell to upset the apple card and in the death overs, he is simply the best man in the business.
Chasing 233 would have been a cakewalk for this England side. They have depth in the batting. Chris Woakes, who has a century in Test cricket comes down at number eight. Sri Lanka’s chances of defending that total against this England side, which has been breaking all sorts of batting records this World Cup, was next to nothing. But still, Malinga had a few tricks up his sleeves.
Malinga accounted for James Vince and Jonny Bairstow in his first spell. Then came back for a second spell in the middle overs to dismiss Joe Root and Jos Buttler in the middle overs. He should have finished with a five-wicket haul but Ben Stokes was dropped by Kusal Mendis at deep mid-wicket. It didn’t matter as he had done the job.
Batting with tail, Stokes would take no chance exposing the tail to Malinga. There were several occasions where he turned down a single. Malinga and tail-enders are a deadly combination. Strangely, Stokes felt that against Nuwan Pradeep he could expose the tail-ender taking a single in the fifth ball and Pradeep nailed England’s last man.
Inside 14 days, Malinga has returned home twice. He flew to Colombo soon after the washout against Bangladesh in Bristol to attend his mother-in-law’s funeral. Then he flew back to London on the eve of his team’s clash against Australia at The Oval and that night went back to Sri Lanka again to be with his grieving family. He landed in Leeds 48 hours before the must-win clash against England and came up with a match-winning performance. Only champions can do that.
There was criticism that Malinga had not trained properly before the England clash. But if he keeps winning you matches, let him fly back to Colombo after every game.
Not just with bowling, but Malinga contributes to this side in many ways. Despite the disappointment of being losing the captaincy, during England’s run chase, it was his brain that skipper Karunaratne tapped into when it came for field placing and bowling changes. Malinga has frequented these Englishmen at the IPL and knows their pros and cons. More than Karunaratne, it looked as if Malinga was running the show.
In 2017, Sri Lanka discarded Malinga totally. They didn’t pick him for 12 months. He was contemplating retirement even then but Mahela Jayawardene, his mentor, urged him not to give it away. Sri Lanka now realise that it was a wise decision that they didn’t close the chapter on him completely. Match winning bowlers don’t turn up that often and when they are around they need to be celebrated.
Sri Lanka were heading to Durham shortly after their thrilling win. They have got back to back games against West Indies and South Africa at the northernmost cricket ground in England. They will take a day off on Saturday before resuming training on Sunday. They will be hoping that Malinga will be firing on all cylinders to have any chance of making it to the semi-finals.
Malinga is fourth among the top wicket-takers in World Cups. He has got 51 scalps and probably will end the competition as third most wicket taker behind Glenn McGrath (71) and Muttiah Muralitharan (68).
Eoin Morgan, the Irishman in England colours would have learnt a bitter lesson on Friday– don’t count your chicken before they hatch. The England captain in a scathing criticism at the start of the competition had run down Sri Lankan selections. Well, the tournament favourites have been caught off guard suffering a shock 20 run defeat. With Australia, India and New Zealand being their next three opponents, making it to the semis looks a tedious task now. And England don’t play that well when put under pressure.