As Malinga's body grows weary, opponents remain wary
A decade ago, Lasith Malinga wrote himself a place in the history books by becoming the first - and still only - bowler to take four wickets in four balls in a one-day international. During the 2007 World Cup, against South Africa in Guyana, he almost conjured a remarkable Sri Lanka victory by removing Shaun Pollock, Andrew Hall, Jacques Kallis and Makhaya Ntini with a mixture of slower balls and yorkers.
He had already made a name for himself with that set of skills before the tournament and would continue to dominate the white-ball landscape over the next eight years. However, the last two years have been a different story. A string of leg injuries have kept him sidelined or restricted to the four-over allotments of T20 cricket. In many ways, when thinking of Malinga in recent times it has felt like he is older than his 33 years. More than a decade of flinging his body to the crease, with his unique action, has taken its toll.
Sri Lanka's opening Champions Trophy match against South Africa was Malinga's first ODI since facing West Indies at Pallekele in November 2015. The speed gun was often closer to 130 kph than the 140-145 kph at Malinga's peak, which rattled batsmen's stumps for so long. The run-up had a touch more waddle about it and his variations, in length and pace, were utilised far earlier in the innings in an effort to compensate.
"He didn't bowl quite like two years ago," Upul Tharanga, Sri Lanka's stand-in captain, said, "but he's getting better and better. He bowled well up front and also at the death."
There was just enough to revive memories of Malinga's heyday though. Most notably, he conceded two runs when he returned for the 40th over of the innings, and his set of six included a toe-crusher at Hashim Amla which could well have got through a batsman less set than Amla on 96. The breakdown of his spells were certainly respectable for someone whose 10 overs will have felt like a hefty workload: 4-0-14-0, 2-0-13-0, 1-0-2-0 and 3-0-28-0.
"He's still got the same skill," Faf du Plessis said. "The pace is down and that makes it a little easier to face because when he bowls quick, then the real slower ball it becomes tricky. So the difference in pace made it easier but you still have to be very watchful and he's very accurate. We played him really well not to give him any wickets."
He may have held his own with the ball, but Malinga's fielding was a different matter. In an overall display by Sri Lanka which was eye-catchingly sharp, Malinga's drop of du Plessis at long leg was an eyesore. Du Plessis was on 8 and South Africa had not yet moved through the gears when Malinga made a complete mess of the chance. Nuwan Pradeep had already dismissed Quinton de Kock in the 13th over and induced a top-edged pull by du Plessis in the 17th to create another opportunity headed for Malinga, who initially stepped on the rope before realising he had gone too far back and then failed to cling on to the ball while diving forward.
From that moment on, the Amla-du Plessis stand flourished, the run-rate of the partnership passing seven-an-over. Sri Lanka deserve credit for how they pulled the innings back to keep South Africa a tick under 300 - the final 10 overs costing 78 runs is a solid feat against a side with wickets in hand - and Niroshan Dickwella's brazen approach against new ball raised hopes of a notable reversal. In the end, however, the final margin pretty much went to script - one which had become familiar on the tour of South Africa earlier this year.
It is understandable that Sri Lanka have returned to Malinga - you don't throw away 291 ODI wickets - even though it had to be considered a gamble. But elsewhere there was a feeling that Sri Lanka took a backward step in their selection for this match. They were dealt a cruel hand when Angelo Mathews failed his morning fitness test, removing their best batsman and a useful bowling option, but responded with a negative mindset.
As Bangladesh did against England, Sri Lanka packed the batting. They opted for Chamara Kapugedera, playing his first ODI for 18 months who was then lbw first ball, and the rolling legspin of Seekkuge Prasanna - picked off at seven-an-over - ahead of the left-arm wrist spin of Lakshan Sandakan, a bowler who befuddled Australia, albeit in Test cricket, and would have presented a wicket-taking option. It continued an early theme of the tournament: leaving out wrist spinners. England omitted Adil Rashid against Bangladesh, Australia let Adam Zampa warm the bench against New Zealand and Sri Lanka followed suit with Sandakan.
It seems increasingly apparent that the only way to prevent sides approaching or comfortably crossing 300 will be to bowl them out. At the moment the prevailing view is that any target is chaseable these days, but a sense of attack in selection could open up another route to victory. It feels especially important for less favoured sides in the tournament - Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan - whose batting line-ups are not as hefty whoever they select.
There is a group of younger players with gumption. Dickwella showed it here, Kusal Mendis is a rare talent and Sandakan should be in that bracket. They need backing, belief and to be selected. Sri Lanka have looked to the past for inspiration from Malinga, but they also need to embrace the future to keep their tournament alive.
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo