Malinga's absence in Tests leaves a gaping hole
If there was any lingering doubt about Lasith Malinga's value to Sri Lanka, his performance in the ODIs against Australia proved again why his absence from the upcoming Test series will be a big blow for the hosts. Australia won the ODI series 3-2, but the result may well have been different had Malinga been fit for the first match, which Sri Lanka lost. As it turned out, he was instrumental in both Sri Lankan wins.
He topped the series bowling charts, taking the most wickets, 11, at the lowest average, 11.45, and for good measure became the first bowler to take three ODI hat-tricks.
So it came as no surprise when Michael Clarke, the Australia captain, said he was thankful that his team would not have to cope with Malinga's slinging action and pinpoint yorkers in the Tests. "He is an excellent bowler," Clarke said. "He's got an excellent yorker and an equally good slower ball. I am glad that he is not playing us in the Test series."
In the final one-dayer, Malinga ripped through Australia's lower order to set up a consolation four-wicket win. Australia were in a good position at 210 for 5 in the 45th over when Malinga produced one of his special overs to send back Mitchell Johnson (bowled), John Hastings (lbw) and Xavier Doherty (bowled) to record his third ODI hat-trick.
Malinga's fiery burst led to Australia losing their last five wickets for just one run and Tillakaratne Dilshan, the Sri Lanka captain, said that he was lucky to have the bowler in his side. "Malinga is a great asset. Everyone can't do Malinga's job. He is an experienced wicket-taking bowler. Every time you give him the ball he will take wickets for you not only today but in the last few years."
Unfortunately for Dilshan, his luck will be restricted to the ODIs as he will have to find a way to manage without his best bowler come the Tests. When Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas, arguably Sri Lanka's best bowlers ever, retired, Malinga was touted as their successor.
But a knee injury which he picked up during the Australia tour in 2007 threatened to cut short his career. It was only thanks to the healing powers of Dr Eliyantha White, the personal physician of Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa, that Malinga recovered from the injury to return to international cricket in 2010. But after appearing in two Tests against India, he found the strain too much for his knee and did not play the final Test of that series.
In April this year he made the surprise announcement that he was retiring from Tests to spare his knee further damage. "Some people thought that I took this decision for financial gains," Malinga said. "But it was not so. I love the game so much that I want to play as long as I can. I know my knee won't allow me a long career if I continued to play Test cricket.
"I took the decision to concentrate on the shorter versions of the game because it gave me a lot of time to rest my knee between matches. I have no ambitions to return to Test cricket in the future. My future is in the one-day game and Twenty20 cricket. That way I can serve my country better and longer."
Today Malinga is among the best one-day bowlers in the game with his toe-crushing yorkers and slower balls but he was unaware of the historical significance of his latest feat. "I realised that I had become the first bowler to take three hat-tricks in ODI cricket only after the match," he said. "I am extremely happy that I emulated the feat of two other fast bowlers whom I had seen and admired - Wasim Akram and Chaminda Vaas.
"It is these kinds of performances that you are remembered after you have retired from the game. I was not expecting anything like this when I came onto bowl. My job is to take wickets and help the team to win."
That job, however, does not extend to Tests, and Sri Lanka will be hard pressed to find someone to fill his shoes.