June 20, 2013

The Malinga threat

India's batsmen will need to find a way to overcome Sri Lanka's most potent weapon

As India prepare to take on Sri Lanka in the Champions Trophy semi-final in Cardiff, they might be spending a little bit of time deciphering Lasith Malinga, the bowler who could prove to be the biggest threat to them.

While some Indian batsmen, like Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni, have got the better of Malinga on various occasions, the ones who haven't faced him enough might still be a little wary. The reason Kohli and Dhoni have done well against Malinga is because they go deep into the crease, which allows them to get under his yorkers. And their whippy quick-arm strokes, without flourish but with great power, have enabled them to hit him through the on side. Once Malinga's most dangerous weapon is rendered ineffective, it's easier to deal with the rest. Malinga would do well to remove these two batsmen early or else Angelo Mathews might have to keep his premier bowler away from Dhoni and Kohli.

The first problem while facing Malinga is getting used to his unique action. Batsmen are conditioned to play bowlers with high-arm actions and hence look at their points of release - the earlier the release, the fuller the ball; the later the release, the shorter it is. A beamer and a bouncer are the results of releasing the ball at the earliest and the latest possible moment.

While this is a generally sound method of judging length, it doesn't work as accurately against Malinga, since his points of release are different from those of most other bowlers. You have to be a little careful at the beginning, even if you have played him a thousand times.

The second thing you must be careful about is his variable bounce. Since he has a slingy action, he doesn't release the ball at the top of his height, which means the bounce he gets off the surface isn't directly proportional to the length, as it is for bowlers who have a high-arm action.

Lastly, his ability to mix his variations with accuracy makes him a difficult bowler to play. In one over against Australia at The Oval, he bowled three well-disguised slower ones, an accurate yorker, a bouncer, and a high-speed length delivery. His ability to mix his deliveries up doesn't allow the batsman to line him up and that's the primary reason for his success in the shortest format.

But every coin has two sides. While Malinga is extremely effective when he's at the top of his game, he isn't half as good if things aren't falling into place. Since he isn't the traditional seam-up bowler who relies on swing in the air and movement off the surface, he not only needs pinpoint accuracy with his line and length, he also can't afford to slow down even by a fraction.

If conditions are conducive to fast bowling, as they were in Cardiff for the England v New Zealand game, he tends to struggle a little bit, for to make full use of the conditions you need to pitch the ball on the seam more often. With his action, it's almost impossible to hit the seam on the pitch every time, and so it deprives him of lateral movement off the surface. No wonder, Nuwan Kulasekara was a more potent force in Australia during the tri-series in 2012.

Since bounce and movement off the surface aren't Malinga's allies, he relies on beating the batsmen with pace, or at times the lack of it. The difference in pace between his regular ball and the slower one, without any visible change in the action or his arm speed, befuddles the batsmen. If the variation in speed isn't that much, batsmen won't find it as difficult.

As Malinga's methods continue to be exposed, he needs to keep raising the bar. He might have lost a few teeth in the recent past, but you disregard his threat at your peril, for he still has the ability to change the complexion of a match, like he did in the low-scoring game against New Zealand.

While the Indian batsmen will be calling on their experience of playing against him, Malinga will be hoping to win just one more battle, to take his team to yet another final.

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