South Africa v Sri Lanka, Champions Trophy, Group B, The Oval June 3, 2017

As Malinga's body grows weary, opponents remain wary

A decade since Lasith Malinga nearly pulled off an epic heist against South Africa in the 2007 World Cup, his speed has waned but the respect shown by his foes has not
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Lasith Malinga's figures may not show it, but South Africa's batsmen played him with watchful eye © AFP

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • john_bnsa on June 9, 2017, 12:09 GMT

    Malinga vaas philander anderson, pollock McGrath ambrose walsh Donald etc all prove that bowling at 130k is perfectly normal

  • sasikaadesh on June 7, 2017, 8:31 GMT

    @INAZ: Even though I like the choice of someone else for Sandakan (as he has no control over the ball), your batting selection is far more worse than what we have now. There is no point of including Dhananjaya as he is not suitable for ODIs. We could try Asalanka in-place of Seeku as he could ball few good spin overs as well. With the introduction of IPL, Big Bash etc. modern day cricket has changed alot... we now have huge scores in the board. It is not a time to put too many classical players who cant even hit a boundary in the middle of the overs. True that we struggle with the current team, but I still believe we should go ahead with a team like below: - 01-Dickwella, 02-UT, 03-Mendis, 04- Kapu, 05-Angi, 06-Asela, 07-KJP, 08-Asalanka, 09-Nuwan, 10-Malinga, 11-Aponso

  • Inaz on June 6, 2017, 19:45 GMT

    Moving forward my team for ODI will be, in batting order; 1)Dickwella 2)Dhananjaya 3)Tharanga 4)Mendis 5)Asalanka 6)Asela 7)Mathews 8)T.Perera 9)Vandersay 10)Binura Fernando 11)Lakmal/V.Sanjaya/Chameera/K.Rajitha. Out of the 11 I have selected 8 who can bowl. I haven't filled with wicket keepers, like our current selector. One of the main reason we are failing is because even middle order batters are top order batsman who cannot adapt to middle order role. However, Tharanga should bat at 3 to anchor the innings and also he plays spin well. And Mathews should bat at 7 because it will lift the confidence of all the other 6 batsman, that your best batsman in the team is still to come and also his ability to finish off the game with an improved batsman Thissara Perera. I selected Vandersay over sandakan because of his control and him and Binura Fernando can hold a bat too. What do you think guys?

  • Herath-UK on June 6, 2017, 9:26 GMT

    I'm not in favour of SLC's policy of giving the captaincy to young players. Your wisdom should tell you that is asking for trouble & disharmony in the long run. Captaincy should always go to a senior player (unless exceptional circumstances).

  • Ayomi on June 5, 2017, 18:28 GMT

    Malinga should be given the odi captaincy. Do not give to Chandimal or Matthews. They loose their form. I still do not like two persons over the winning statistics. Kapu and Tharanga. Why are not trying Dilruwan?. We always play for the future. But when it comes we are still in a desperate situation.

  • Deepfreezed on June 5, 2017, 18:16 GMT

    Problem is Chandimal and Thirimanna. They were given the opportunity early to be the replacements. Both are proven failures now. Thisara Perera is also a let down after getting so many chances. Now there is a lack of experience and talented players. It doesn't help that Mattews is our negative captain in charge. Chandimal should copy Steve Smiths batting style. Early on Chandimal was similar mold to Steve Smith, moving about the crease making those strange kitchen sink shots. I bet Attapatu and Ford got to him and fixed his batting and now we are left with Chandimal the ball hogger.

  • cricfan76238732 on June 5, 2017, 11:28 GMT

    I missed Sandun Weerakkodi! Never really liked the guy at the beginning but he can be a handful in the future if managed properly. He can bat/bowl and wicketkeep too. He needs to be groomed to bat in the middle order (6/7) and be the finisher Sri Lanka is badly looking for.

  • cricfan76238732 on June 5, 2017, 11:22 GMT

    Kusal Mendis is the ideal guy for the number 3 slot. But he has to realize that he is no Virat or Kane or Root for that matter. He can be better than them if he keep his head down and do whats needed from him, which is to anchor the innings. Just like what Asanka Gurusinghe did in the glory days of SL cricket. Mendis is the guy who needs to bat till the 50th over holding one end so that all others can bat around him. I really don't know whats the use of giving more chances to a proven failure - Dinesh Chandimal & Kapu! Time to move on. We have enough and more young players. Asela Gunarathne is too good to bat lower than number 4/5. He should take Chandimal's position. Time to bring in Sadeera Samarawickrama or young Jehan Daniel or Charith Asalanka in to the side. We need a proper all rounder! What happened to Dhananjaya De Silva? He was the closest replacement to TM Dilshan.

  • SR-24 on June 5, 2017, 10:51 GMT

    This team is the best team after the sanga-mahela era the lads should be given more time to gain team chemistry and experience.

  • cricfan03817616 on June 5, 2017, 10:46 GMT

    Why do we keep on talking about Sanga and Mahela? They have retired and gone. We appreciated them for their contribution to Sri Lanka Cricket, but let's not live in the past. Let's look at the players we have today and see what they can do, without making unnecessary comparisons.

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