August 9, 2012

Why Malinga is less dangerous now

The use of a new ball from either end in ODIs has made his yorker, bouncer and slower one easier to deal with

Since his Test debut in 2004, Lasith Malinga has been one of the most discussed bowlers in international cricket, his unusual action causing great curiosity, though it has never been formally questioned. Like most players, Malinga is a product of his environment. His youth was spent playing tennis-ball cricket on the beach, where he adapted his skill and action to suit his environment, producing a delivery that limited the bounce a tennis ball produced, allowing him to hit the target.

The only time I faced Malinga was in a three-day warm-up match on India A's tour to Sri Lanka in 2002. On seeing his low-slung action, Gautam Gambhir and I realised we had to watch his hand closely and keenly, for there seemed to be very little conventional method to his bowling. He was generating disconcerting speed and bounce, and without any clues in his action about what line or length he'd achieve, our job remained tough. But because it was early in his career, he was still quite erratic, so both Gambhir and I managed to get centuries in that match. Malinga would go on to establish himself as one of the most dangerous bowlers in the world.

The trick to batting is to pick the line and length early, because it helps you get into the right positions. The only way to gauge the length is to focus on the point of release - the earlier the release, the fuller the ball. To judge the line, focus on the wrist and the bowler's position on the crease. If the wrist is tilted towards third man and the bowler is very close to the stumps, the educated guess is that the line will be around off stump, since the bowler is trying is to move the ball away from the batsman. If the wrist facing fine leg and the bowler is operating wide of the crease, the ball is likely to slant into the batsman. While the method to gauge length is foolproof, there are exceptions to the rule when judging line. Since there's hardly any time to react after the ball is delivered, most batsmen hedge their bets on following these principles, albeit with a hint of caution.

These rules are relatively easy to follow for orthodox bowlers, whose actions are more predictable, with their bowling arms close to the ear. As a batsman, it takes a lot of time to get used to watching Malinga's bowling hand from in front of the umpire's face.

His accuracy in bowling toe-crushing reverse-swinging yorkers, and ability to bowl bouncers and well-disguised slower ones, have been impressive. Unfortunately, like with most freak actions, after a few years in international cricket Malinga was exposed. Once the novelty wore off, batsmen found ways to judge line and length, and the level of difficulty reduced considerably.

But deception wasn't Malinga's only weapon. A good yorker or bouncer are still a tough delivery to counter. The flip side was that Malinga was at his best only when he bowled either of the two.

Today, because he doesn't hit the pitch with an upright seam consistently, his good-length balls aren't difficult to handle. In seam-friendly conditions, where even lesser bowlers thrive, Malinga finds it tough to be as effective, because since the ball doesn't land on the seam, it doesn't dart around enough. In 11 innings in the CB Series in Australia in February-March this year, Malinga took 18 wickets at 35, with an economy rate of above 6.

The introduction of a new ball from either end in an ODI innings since October 2011 has only compounded Malinga's problems. While he remains effective with the new ball, his performance dips considerably in the middle and death overs because neither ball gets old enough even towards the end of the innings.

Malinga's ODI stats before and since Oct 2011

Innings Wickets Avg SR Econ BBI
Before Oct 2011 90 149 25.03 30.4 4.93 6/38
Since Oct 1, 2011 33 51 31.07 33.5 5.55 5/54

His reverse-swinging toe-crushers are not finding their mark as consistently as they used to. Any quality bowler will confirm that it's far more difficult to find the blockhole with a newish ball as compared to an old one. Even when Malinga does find the target with the relatively new ball, the lack of reverse swing makes it easier for the batsman to get under it. His slower deliveries have also been affected by the rule. While earlier the offbreak variation of the slower ball would grip the surface and bounce a lot more off it, now the lack of grip off the pitch takes the sting away.

Over-wise break-up of Malinga's ODI bowling
Period First 15 - average ER/ SR 16-40 - average ER/ SR 41-50 - average ER/ SR
Before Oct 2011 36.32 4.57/ 47.67 23.12 4.60/ 30.12 17.21 6.21/ 16.61
Since Oct 1, 2011 29.05 4.94/ 35.29 53.41 5.62/ 57.0 20.31 6.29/ 19.37

Batsmen like Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni have started to decipher Malinga's once-mysterious bowling with ease. Batsmen who stay low in their stance are better equipped to counter the lower trajectory of Malinga's deliveries. It also helps to shorten your backlift while dealing with reverse-swinging yorkers. Generally when batsmen sacrifice their backlift, they sacrifice power, but Kohli and Dhoni have the ability to generate enough bat speed, and thereby get power into their shots by flicking their wrists. They are also able to get the better of Malinga because they are good on the leg side, thanks to their strong wrists, and go deep inside the crease to get under his yorkers.

Top five run-getters against Malinga in ODIs
Batsman Runs Balls faced Dismissals
Gautam Gambhir 172 188 2
Virender Sehwag 160 151 3
Virat Kohli 147 128 1
Sachin Tendulkar 147 170 4
MS Dhoni 137 126 2

Malinga has pushed the boundaries of convention long enough to finally be admired and not admonished. Watching him in action has made me believe that cricket isn't entirely a batsman's game, after all. The introduction of two new balls in ODIs was expected to trouble the spinners, but it has adversely affected Malinga too. It would be a pity to see such a marvel go down, unless of course, he adds few more tricks to his bag.

With inputs from S Rajesh, ESPNcricinfo stats editor

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here