Lasith Malinga went unsold in the 2018 IPL auction. He was - and he still is - the top wicket-taker in the IPL. His pace was on the wane, multiple injuries proved a bane and he was out of the international scene, too. Instead, he had a stint in ice cricket in Switzerland, which largely featured retired stars, including his former Sri Lanka captain and current Mumbai Indians coach Mahela Jayawardene. Jacques Kallis and Michael Hussey, who are also coaches in the IPL, were part of the Switzerland jaunt, too. Later, Mumbai roped Malinga in as a bowling mentor for IPL 2018 - his first such role with any side. You might have wondered whether this was the end for one of the most celebrated fast bowlers ever.
When Malinga was a teenager, he had "nearly hit all of them" at the Sri Lanka nets, so much that the senior players feared that he might injure them with his breakneck speed and unique round-arm action. The breakneck speed is gone, the knee, ankle and hamstrings are all creaky, but Malinga is still around - returning to Mumbai as a player in IPL 2019, after being recalled into Sri Lanka's side as well.
He doesn't quite breach 140kph these days, but then, again, he isn't as slow as that one time when he bowled offbreaks in a club game because of bad light. As a bowler Malinga has never let his ego distract him, instead he has strived to improvise within his limitations. That has helped him find a middle ground: working over batsmen with his slower variations, particularly the offcutter that kicks up at the batsmen.
The offcutter has been responsible for seven of the 15 wickets Malinga has picked up this season. What about that deadly yorker that gave nightmares to batsmen? Believe it or not, the yorker has fetched Malinga one wicket.
Malinga's protégé Jasprit Bumrah is currently the highest wicket-taker for Mumbai with 17 scalps in 15 matches at an economy rate of 6.84, but the master isn't too far behind. Having played four fewer games than Bumrah, Malinga has taken 15 wickets at an economy rate of 9.52. While he has been expensive, Malinga's strike-rate of 16.3 is the fourth best among seamers who have bowled at least 30 overs this season - only Sunrisers Hyderabad's Khaleel Ahmed, and Delhi Capitals' Kagiso Rabada and Chris Morris have fared better in this regard.
If you're still not convinced that Malinga has it, how about 10 for 83 across formats and across countries in less than 12 hours? After helping Mumbai stall the Chennai Super Kings juggernaut at the Wankhede Stadium, with the vital wickets of Shane Watson, Kedar Jadhav and Dwayne Bravo, he took a 1.40am flight from Mumbai, landed home at 4.30am and finally dashed to Kandy by 7am to turn out for Galle in the domestic 50-over tournament. Malinga made it by memorable outing by grabbing a career-best 7 for 49, eighteen seasons after making his List A debut.
While Malinga was away from the IPL, West Indies tearaway Alzarri Joseph claimed 6 for 12 on debut - the best bowling figures in the IPL. Even after Malinga's return, the Mumbai team management opted for Joseph's promise over Malinga's experience. Joseph was taken to the cleaners by Rajasthan Royals' Jos Buttler and he wound up conceding 53 in three overs - the most expensive three-over spell in the competition. To add injury to insult, Joseph suffered a tear in his right arm and was consequently ruled out of the tournament.
South Africa left-arm quick Beuran Hendricks was added to the roster as a replacement, but Mumbai had to fall back on Malinga's experience. The Sri Lankan marked his comeback to the IPL with two four-wicket hauls in four matches. Royal Challengers Bangalore's AB de Villiers went after Malinga once again - de Villiers reaped 23 runs off the eight balls he faced off Malinga. The bowler, however, recovered and took down Moeen Ali and Marcus Stoinis with crafty offcutters before taking care of the tail.
Malinga also expertly exploited a slower-than-usual Chepauk track with his cutters and returned 4 for 37. His haul was central to Mumbai knocking over Super Kings for 109 - their lowest total at Chepauk.
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Malinga then reminded the world of his tact and nous when he went around the wicket to Andre Russell and bounced him out for a golden duck in a game Mumbai needed to win to have two cracks at a place in the IPL final. Russell gone. Game over for Kolkata Knight Riders.
"He had a good practice session yesterday [on May 4] and he felt very good. We told him it's about time he tries it in a game," Jayawardene said of the Russell set-up. "That's a thing in modern-day cricket, even though you have been a great, you still have to find new ways of creating things. It was nice to see him opening up for that idea and getting rewards."
Malinga's resurgence truly began in the unheralded Global T20 Canada in mid-2018, when he embraced his limitations and ditched his rapid yorkers for the floaty slower balls. He took 13 wickets - most of which via offcutters - in six games at an average of 11.64 and economy rate of 6.41. Malinga's economy rate was the best among seamers who had bowled more than 20 overs in the competition. Just like that, he was back in Sri Lanka's World Cup plans and Mumbai's IPL plans.
Age, fitness issues, reduced pace could have easily defeated his confidence, but Malinga the fast bowler understands T20 cricket better than many. He might not fluently articulate his skills, but with ball in hand you can read his bowling intellect. Whether Mumbai took a gamble by buying back Malinga, we don't know. What has remained a constant is Malinga's status as one of the most valuable weapons for Mumbai in their pursuit of an unprecedented fourth IPL title.