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Sri Lanka's local hero

On beaches, on town roads, in coconut estates and paddy fields across Sri Lanka, there is almost always the neighbourhood legend who rules the cricket. Sometimes he is a batsman of frightening power - the kid who sends balls on to the school roof, the man who launches quicks into the brush next door. He hits the ball and stands upright, admiring his shot, while the beleaguered fielding side go scrambling through the undergrowth, praying they don't wander into a snake's nest.

Often, the local hero is a bowler. Street matches in Colombo and Galle are awash with supple-wristed, dipping, gripping spin. The quicks are most feared of all. Nothing humiliates batsmen like the sound of ball on stumps, or plank of wood, or coconut branch.

Many years ago, Lasith Malinga was king of the Rathgama curve of sand. There are plenty of beach cricketers who bowl round arm in Sri Lanka - a horde of young men who have worked out that low trajectories make balls near impossible to hit off the wet beach. But Malinga, you imagine, was lord over them all: too quick through the air and quicker through the blockhole. Too strong to swipe into the sea. Too fit to tire out, and give bad balls.

On Malinga's person now are all his latter-day adornments of global superstardom: the tattoos, the piercings, the gold-tinged curls, the arrogance. And oh, that little... extra around the middle. But beyond all that, look closer at Malinga. Focus only on the moments between that touch of lips on leather and the split second the ball leaves his hand. In those moments, he is still the ace on the beach. Strip him down to his art, and he is still the star of his surf.

His approach to the crease is not Dale Steyn's steaming locomotive, or Mitchell Johnson's pounding, powerful charge. Malinga's run-up is a steady seaside amble. He picks each foot up slowly after each step, like they are forever stuck in a half-inch of sodden sand.

Then he explodes at the crease. Over the years, each of those explosions chipped a few molecules off his knee joints and his ankle. But at the point of delivery, his face shows only a mild grimace. Here is a man who grew up watching waves roll in, you think. Muttiah Muralitharan had wide-eyed intensity. Shoaib Akhtar had his grunt. Malinga whips his body through the crease so fast his elbow bends backwards, but still he musters only that hint of a grimace. When he beats a batsman's edge, there's only a thin smile. So uninvolved he seems. So laid back. Just like in his spells in his village. Just like with his friends on the sand.

In this tournament, his team-mates have seen him as their neighbourhood hero as well. All the talk from the camp has been about "peaking at the right time", and "getting everyone into rhythm". Sometimes Mathews and the other seniors have mentioned Malinga in the same sentence. Other times they have left his name unsaid, but there can be no doubt he is at the forefront of their minds.

Kumar Sangakkara hundreds are becoming pass now, even for the man himself, but the team exults at each Malinga wicket. He is the man on whose searing yorkers Sri Lanka campaigns have lived and died. He is the man who took four wickets in four balls in the Caribbean, sent MS Dhoni's helicopter shot crashing in Dhaka, 18 months after Marlon Samuels had taken him apart in Khettarama.

He is the bowler Sri Lanka call on when they need a wicket. Against Australia, he sucker-punched David Warner with a slower ball, soon after slipping him the quicker one. On Wednesday, he claimed Kyle Coetzer - Scotland's best batsman of the tournament so far - with a dipping, length ball the batsman just lobbed back at him. When Preston Mommsen and Freddie Coleman were cruising through the early middle overs, Malinga was brought to the crease to break the stand. He comes back during the batting Powerplay, then returns again at the death. The neighbourhood hero gets no easy overs. It's all high pressure for him.

Sri Lanka build their entire bowling plan around Malinga. Even on bad days they keep throwing him the ball, hoping he will come good because, as his captain says, when Malinga fires "the things he can do are immense". So they forgive him his atrocious outfielding and his suspect catching. They forgive him his moods and his quirks. Some days in the field, all his team-mates are just a bunch of kids on the sand, pleading with their superstar to turn the game. "We've lost this match unless you do something special," Mahela Jayawardene had said to Malinga, before his four-in-four against South Africa. How many times must Malinga have heard that phrase? From how many captains?

Sri Lanka's group stages are done now. Aching joints, full belly and all, Malinga has been their best bowler. His form in the last two matches has been ominous. He has trained harder in the past three weeks than he has for much of the career, and has 11 wickets at an average of 20.64 from his last five outings. Sangakkara might score them a mountain of runs, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan may produce in clutch moments, but Sri Lanka know, beyond a doubt, that Malinga is the man who will come closest to defining them. On their present curve of sand, Malinga is the kid that wins them matches.