The first batsman Lasith Malinga hit on the head was Bradman! Yes, you heard it right. Bradman Ediriweera, who played over 100 First Class games, had no shame in getting hit by a rookie 19-year-old. Ever since, Malinga has troubled many a famous batsman from Adam Gilchrist to Yuvraj Singh in different shades of blue – donning the navy blue for his beloved Sri Lanka and the sky blue for his IPL franchise – Mumbai Indians.
As popular as he is in the whole of Sri Lanka and in other parts of the world, particularly in Mumbai, Malinga rubs shoulders with both the elite and the common man.
There had been doubts whether Malinga will play just the first ODI against Bangladesh or the entire series before retiring from 50 overs cricket. He chose the most uncommon means to confirm that Friday’s first ODI will be his last – posting a video on facebook.
The response was overwhelming. Tickets for the game went off the shelves like hot cake and more than 48 hours before the game, Sri Lanka Cricket made an announcement that the curtain-raiser in Colombo had been sold out.
Never since the World Cup semi-final in 2011, the R Premadasa Stadium (RPS) had seen a full house. The commoners love Malinga. Some who couldn’t fetch tickets paid Rs 5000 and more for the ones originally priced at Rs 500.
The elite love him too. Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s richest man, provides Malinga his private jet to travel to Colombo after an IPL game if the fast bowler feels like spending the weekend with the family in Colombo. Sri Lanka’s popular former President and current Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa attends every function at Malinga’s residence at his posh Dickman’s Road mansion. Elite and the common man, Malinga charmed them all.
The scenes at RPS on Friday night during his last ODI have been never witnessed before. Not even when great Arjuna Ranatunga or the legendary Muttiah Muralitharan, two of country’s favourite sons retired. Malinga’s ability to reach out to people in an all walks of life is unique.
'Mali' as he is affectionately knowm was a rebel. He was not afraid to call a spade a spade and challenge the high and the mighty. When the sports ministry introduced minimum fitness standards for those who represent the country, Malinga was left out. The sports minister went onto claim that he was unfit. Anyone else would have gone on the diplomatic channels but Malinga took parliamentarian Dayasiri Jayasekara head on. Malinga had to pay a heavy price as he was snubbed from international cricket for more than a year.
A comeback looked unlikely for him with SLC striking a responsive chord with the ministry. Former World Cup winning captain Ranatunga with a tongue in cheek comment said that if the minimum fitness standards were applicable during his playing days, he would have barely lasted two years.
It looked all over for Malinga. He met SLC requesting them for a farewell game. SLC turned down the request indicating that they didn’t believe in the practice of farewell games. This was the line in the sand moment for Malinga. There will be no more begging, no more diplomacy. He threw down the gauntlet at SLC as he decided he would only go down on his own terms.
It looked the glory days were over when Mumbai Indians appointed him as a bowling mentor for the 2018 season. The odds of him making a comeback were greater than Maithripala Sirisena winning re-election for President's post. Malinga, however kept fighting – worked on his fitness and bowling with his mentor Anusha Samaranayake. and after an impressive domestic season, he was recalled for the Asia Cup in UAE in 2018. On his return, he claimed a four-wicket haul against Bangladesh in the lung opener of the tournament.
Soon he became an indispensable member of the Lankan side again. He found his mojo with the toe crushing yorkers and the well-disguised slower balls that helped him stack up match winning performances, convincing the Mumbai Indians to reinstate him as bowler. The rest as they say is history and as the fate would have it, Malinga delivered a stunning final over in the 2019 IPL final to help Mumbai win their fourth title.
Malinga was Sri Lanka’s best performer in the recently concluded ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, finishing with 13 wickets. His four-wicket haul produced the biggest upset in the tournament as Sri Lanka beat eventual winners England at Headingley.
Less than a year after totally snubbing him, SLC were at his feet asking him not to retire after the first ODI. The Board wanted him to play all three ODIs as there’s a possibility that ninth ranked Sri Lanka could move up to eighth if they beat Bangladesh 3-0.
For once, SLC got it right. Had they put down their guard and given him a farewell game, we wouldn’t have witnessed one of the greatest comebacks in the sport. Go well champion.