New Zealand v Sri Lanka, Champions Trophy, Group A, Cardiff June 9, 2013

Malinga battles past the critics

A flawed man no doubt, but Lasith Malinga is foremost a cricketer, and if his ego drives more spells like he delivered in Cardiff, Sri Lanka fans should not mind it so much

Earlier this year, Lasith Malinga drew the ire of much of Sri Lanka's media as well as many fans, for an incident that earned him an official reprimand from the board. Approached by a television journalist as he was stepping out of his sports car during the contracts crisis of early March, Malinga lashed out while the camera rolled.

His rebuke on that occasion, which translates poorly into English, was barbed with arrogance, and it has since become the punch line of a thousand Sri Lankan jokes, both in the cricketing sphere and outside it. Today, as Sri Lanka strove to defend a laughably meagre total, his nation's chances lived and died on the menace of Malinga's fearsome final spell. Even the fire blazing in his bones today may not be enough to allay the doubts about him that are so unjustly popular at home.

In a country as small and insecure as Sri Lanka, patriotism is deemed paramount. There are plenty who cannot stomach Malinga's Test retirement, his showy tattoos, or the blonde tinge in his hair that seems to rejuvenate at the beginning of each IPL season. And, understandably, Malinga despises the sniping on his integrity. In the last year, he has been in two caustic on air arguments - on radio and television - with journalists who have posed questions he did not like. He is a fool for engaging with his critics on record. In a culture that prizes humility more than most, he will lose every battle he wages on the newshounds and the wordsmiths. The public should perhaps realise too, that not everyone is Mahela or Murali.

His captains have now grown so accustomed to defending his motives when a Test series approaches, they answer his detractors on autopilot. In February, even Sri Lanka Cricket board members waded in staunchly and sincerely on Malinga's behalf, even as they planned their contracts ambush on the players. "There is nothing in the world that that child has not done to try and give his all for Sri Lanka," the secretary said. "Doctors have told him there is a chance that he might not walk in later years if he even keeps playing limited overs cricket," the CEO offered. There are no Sri Lanka players in memory that have required, or inspired, that level of support from on high. There are not many in the world who can make a match pivot so emphatically either.

Brendon McCullum spoke of the difficulty of keeping Malinga out, despite knowing exactly where he will put the ball. Late in any match, the element of surprise is completely lost to Malinga, yet he rattles chases as well as anyone in the game, through sheer, staggering skill and precision. He is not the most complete bowler in the world, but considering he had not touched a hard, leather ball until he was 17, he has trod a long, hard road from his village of Rathgama. His coaches speak almost reverently of the countless hours he spent bowling at a pair of shoes, glued to the turf where a batsman would stand.

Under Sri Lanka's new contracts, Malinga does not receive a cut of the ICC's Champions Trophy payment to the home boards, unlike players from virtually every other team. That did not seem to matter in Cardiff. When he claimed a wicket, he kicked his afflicted right knee up in the air and roared. It is always so when he fires for Sri Lanka. He has the Mumbai crowd eating out of his hand during the IPL, but in the 2011 World Cup final, he silenced them with the wicket of their favourite son, and ran full-tilt, arms spread wide, from the bowling crease to square leg, wildly, hysterically joyful. The Wankhede was not his crowd that day.

"The way he played today shows what kind of character he is," Angelo Mathews said. "I mean, he's such a tough guy mentally and physically, and he knows exactly what to do in these situations. He's a tail-ender's nightmare. He's so professional and he knows his stuff. He's our premier bowler and you've got to accept it."

The same bluster that betrays him in the public eye, shapes his hunger on match-day. It takes arrogance to believe 138 is a winning total, and in the 2007 World Cup, Malinga had the gall to think South Africa could be defeated when they needed four to win and had five wickets in hand. Four brutes bore down on opposition toes, and he took his side to the brink, then, as he did today. Not everyone is made of such stubborn stuff. Cricketers like Rangana Herath and Shaminda Eranga are earnest, hardworking and pleasant, but theirs is a road of steady cultivation and consistency. Malinga is a man for desperation.

If the plumb lbw shout off Tim Southee had been awarded, Malinga may have scripted a famous win - though he was also lucky to have dismissed Daniel Vettori. To add injury to injustice, Sri Lanka finish the day with a woeful net run rate, that will make progressing to the semi-finals difficult. Malinga is a flawed man no doubt, but he is foremost a cricketer, and if his ego drives more spells like this one, Sri Lanka fans should not mind it so much.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Manesh on June 12, 2013, 4:08 GMT

    SL fans happy with Maling's performance and not worried about teams defeat!. They will be happy if Malinga gets 4-5 wickets and teams goes down. pity!

  • Dummy4 on June 10, 2013, 23:28 GMT

    Well bowled by Malinga but Sri Lanka need to look at their batting line up to stay in the competition. Jayawardne for a good number of months has looked out of form and needs to be dropped till he can recapture his form. Matthews should be batting lower than Thiramarne if early wickets fall. Thiramane batted well in the ODI against australia in australia batting at 4 and 5. The sri lanka team for the next match should be...

    K Perera Dilshan Sangakara Thiramarne Chandimal Matthews Kulasekera T Perera Herath Senanayake Malinga

  • Dummy4 on June 10, 2013, 10:52 GMT

    Those guys who criticize Malinga's showmanship are idiots. Through out his carreer i 've accepted him as a national treasure. Only idiots forget what he has done to SL cricketing landscape and how he transformed a match winning team to a champion side.

  • Dummy4 on June 10, 2013, 10:42 GMT

    The Slinga did the trick but the match was in our hands though if that LBW was given but Yet the team fought hard and roared till thee end that's what every sport is about never give up just go hard at em :) I read a comment stating Malinga's retirement from TEST and it wasn't a good idea well People 20 overs, 50 overs are the shortest forms of the game and a bowler can only bowl just 10 overs that's nothing but when it comes to TESTS it exceeds more than 10 overs for a bowler and would have to bowl for continuous days so with his action I guess that was the right move. Dr. Vandaloo you better know what cricket is all about before criticizing please

  • Lalith on June 10, 2013, 10:38 GMT

    Records are the evidence whoever criticises Malinga. He is the only double hat trick bowler in the world against TOP class team SA. SL would have won if Kula played instead of a batter.

  • Asanka Sharmal on June 10, 2013, 10:16 GMT

    Great article about Malinga!. Hope the local media in SL will be able to read this. Most probably they will need a Sinhalese translation. I do think the bunch of sports writers in SL are pathetic unable to appreciate the talent Malinga has and also envious about the financial gains he makes through his talent. I fully agree with his decision to not play test cricket to preserve his physical abilities for a longer period..........

  • Baundule on June 10, 2013, 10:04 GMT

    Wow! What an amazing timing of an article in order to defend the best limited overs bowler of the world! It was a match where sides were getting all out for less than 140 and even Dilshan was giving away less than 2 runs per over. You do not need to play this cheap shot to defend a player like Malinga. He becomes expensive at times because he tries too many things. Otherwise he is a threat on any pitch.

  • Jake on June 10, 2013, 10:02 GMT

    Funny that he can roar in time after time and bowl full tilt for 10 overs wearing blue, but not in white. How many overs has he bowled for SL or Mumbai Indians since retiring from test cricket? Sad that he's not prepared to carry SL in their time of need in tests after retirement of Vaas and Murali, but instead takes the easy money of ODI and IPL. There are many old fast bowlers hobbling around now who put their country first and their knees second, for example Walsh carried WI attack for years after the big guns had retired. Malinga needs to take a long hard look at himself in the mirror, and look past that ridiculous hair into his inner conscience.

  • Sarah on June 10, 2013, 9:22 GMT

    Well put Mr. Andrew !! Its a bit sad that Malinga doesn't get the respect he rightfully deserves from the most of the Sri Lankans. They obviously know that he is insanely good bowler. Thats why people got really upset when he retired from the test cricket. And of course SL media played a big role there to scrutinize him labeling as a mercenary. But I think they haven't still realized how unique this man is. He is the best limited overs bowler in the world. If he was born in India, today we would see a shrine of him next to Sachin's one. I hope the SL public will understand the service he has given to us n pay him due respect just like they do it for Mahela n Sanga. We love you Slinga n tnx for making our tiny island proud. RESPECT !!!!