Malinga's marvellous comeback
One of the greatest virtues of Muttiah Muralitharan is the big turn he gets on any surface, to almost take those 22 yards out of the equation. In his farewell match, with the kind of reception he got and the way he took the last Indian wicket to reach 800, it is easy to forget the other man to whom the pitch matters little. Lucky is the captain who has both Lasith Malinga and Murali in the same XI. The giant cut-outs on the Galle Fort might have been Murali's, but the most important impact on the match was Malinga's.
There were fears before this Test that, like other out-and-out fast bowlers in the world, Malinga might have made up his mind to concentrate just on limited-overs cricket. Tests can be cruel and thankless. Twenty20s bring more money and fame. It is a tempting choice for a fast bowler, perhaps the most injury-prone breed in non-contact sport. If you see a fast bowler out of Tests for two-and-a-half years, you fear the worst. Kumar Sangakkara, his captain, says, perish the thought.
"We've been trying to get Lasith fit for all forms of cricket for two years now," Sangakkara said. "We believe in him immensely. He's a fighter, works as hard as anyone I have seen. He prepares well to play matches for Sri Lanka." Sangakkara was betting on the right horse: in Malinga's first Test back, all that the captain needed to do was throw the ball his way, and something would happen, often as early as the first over.
The other question was whether a bowler used to Twenty20s for two years would have the patience to work for wickets on flat Sri Lankan pitches. Two balls into his Test comeback, the question became, would he need patience? Does the pitch matter?
The first of those balls, bear in mind it was bowled to an opener who had been on the field for 124 overs in the heat, was on target, full, and swinging in towards middle and leg stump. Gautam Gambhir actually did well to keep it out but Malinga was at him again. From that height, at that pace, swinging in, to a tired batsman who knows the best he can achieve he is a draw, it was too much.
Malinga showed patience when he worked VVS Laxman over in the first innings with bouncers. He wasn't getting reverse-swing then, but he was prepared to set a field and bowl to it. The top edge duly arrived.
In the second innings Malinga was deadlier. Gambhir lasted one more delivery than he did in the first innings. This time he edged one swinging away from him, after the ball pitched in an area similar to where it had swung in from in the first innings. Still, following that, it seemed Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid had pitched tents on the pitch and with every passing delivery on the fourth day the draw kept becoming the favoured result.
The partnership lasted 42.1 overs. Malinga had to be brought back for one final sling before stumps and he slung like he would end the game on the fourth evening. Malinga's attacking fields are as different as his action is. When he is reversing the ball, he doesn't need slips. Yorkers push batsmen back. Short midwicket, short square leg, and backward square leg await any shot that comes off a delivery that is shorter than expected. It happened to Dravid, in the first over of a new Malinga spell again. Tendulkar missed a low full toss that was slower than expected. Yuvraj Singh looked like he would get out every ball in those dying moments of the day.
The work was not done yet, though, and Malinga was to make impact again. In his first over of the final morning, he removed MS Dhoni with a full ball that angled in, pitched around the crease, and then moved away. Better batsmen than Dhoni have been done in by those.
Dhoni paid rich tribute to his conqueror. "Somebody like Malinga - the kind of action he has - even if you are set, if he comes for a fresh spell, it can be the second spell or the third spell, you can't really say you are set," Dhoni said. "You have to start all over again because he has got a unique action. The way he bowled, he normally used to bring the ball in, but in this match we saw he could take it away also, so if you don't pick [even] a single delivery of his, you can be in trouble."
It was to happen once more. Again in the first over of a new spell, like five of his seven wickets in the match, Malinga bowled an unplayable yorker to Abhimanyu Mithun, who had fought well with Laxman for 17.3 overs. It was the first delivery Malinga had at Mithun. As Dhoni said, if you don't pick one ball, you are gone.
Thankfully for Murali's fans, Malinga went off the field. Worriedly we looked again. Had the strain been too much? Sangakkara calmed the fears, saying Malinga was just feeling a little stiff. "We don't want to bowl him into the ground," Sangakkara said. "You know, we've done it with Murali for so many years.
"Test cricket is like that. It's a hard place for bowlers. Everyone forgets how difficult it is to be in the sun and bowl constantly on, sometimes, wickets that give you very little. With our board, we have been discussing to introduce a bonus scheme for bowlers who play an x number of games per year. At the end of the day, an injury will end your career. This is the prime form of the game and we need everyone hungry to play in this form."
Malinga hasn't played more than nine Tests in a row. He strikes every 50 deliveries, and only recently has he been at his best. During his first match back, while nobody noticed, he moved closer to 100 wickets, becoming Sri Lanka's third-highest wicket-taker. His biggest challenge right now is to play more matches without suffering an injury. His captain seems to understand the need of using Malinga in spurts, of respecting his body. If he can put another string of nine Tests together, on evidence of this match, those figures of 98 wickets at a strike-rate of 50 will look remarkably different.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo