Earlier this year, Lasith Malinga drew the ire of much of Sri Lanka's media as well as many fans, for an incident that earned him an official reprimand from the board. Approached by a television journalist as he was stepping out of his sports car during the contracts crisis of early March, Malinga lashed out while the camera rolled.
His rebuke on that occasion, which translates poorly into English, was barbed with arrogance, and it has since become the punch line of a thousand Sri Lankan jokes, both in the cricketing sphere and outside it. Today, as Sri Lanka strove to defend a laughably meagre total, his nation's chances lived and died on the menace of Malinga's fearsome final spell. Even the fire blazing in his bones today may not be enough to allay the doubts about him that are so unjustly popular at home.
In a country as small and insecure as Sri Lanka, patriotism is deemed paramount. There are plenty who cannot stomach Malinga's Test retirement, his showy tattoos, or the blonde tinge in his hair that seems to rejuvenate at the beginning of each IPL season. And, understandably, Malinga despises the sniping on his integrity. In the last year, he has been in two caustic on air arguments - on radio and television - with journalists who have posed questions he did not like. He is a fool for engaging with his critics on record. In a culture that prizes humility more than most, he will lose every battle he wages on the newshounds and the wordsmiths. The public should perhaps realise too, that not everyone is Mahela or Murali.
His captains have now grown so accustomed to defending his motives when a Test series approaches, they answer his detractors on autopilot. In February, even Sri Lanka Cricket board members waded in staunchly and sincerely on Malinga's behalf, even as they planned their contracts ambush on the players. "There is nothing in the world that that child has not done to try and give his all for Sri Lanka," the secretary said. "Doctors have told him there is a chance that he might not walk in later years if he even keeps playing limited overs cricket," the CEO offered. There are no Sri Lanka players in memory that have required, or inspired, that level of support from on high. There are not many in the world who can make a match pivot so emphatically either.
Brendon McCullum spoke of the difficulty of keeping Malinga out, despite knowing exactly where he will put the ball. Late in any match, the element of surprise is completely lost to Malinga, yet he rattles chases as well as anyone in the game, through sheer, staggering skill and precision. He is not the most complete bowler in the world, but considering he had not touched a hard, leather ball until he was 17, he has trod a long, hard road from his village of Rathgama. His coaches speak almost reverently of the countless hours he spent bowling at a pair of shoes, glued to the turf where a batsman would stand.
Under Sri Lanka's new contracts, Malinga does not receive a cut of the ICC's Champions Trophy payment to the home boards, unlike players from virtually every other team. That did not seem to matter in Cardiff. When he claimed a wicket, he kicked his afflicted right knee up in the air and roared. It is always so when he fires for Sri Lanka. He has the Mumbai crowd eating out of his hand during the IPL, but in the 2011 World Cup final, he silenced them with the wicket of their favourite son, and ran full-tilt, arms spread wide, from the bowling crease to square leg, wildly, hysterically joyful. The Wankhede was not his crowd that day.
"The way he played today shows what kind of character he is," Angelo Mathews said. "I mean, he's such a tough guy mentally and physically, and he knows exactly what to do in these situations. He's a tail-ender's nightmare. He's so professional and he knows his stuff. He's our premier bowler and you've got to accept it."
The same bluster that betrays him in the public eye, shapes his hunger on match-day. It takes arrogance to believe 138 is a winning total, and in the 2007 World Cup, Malinga had the gall to think South Africa could be defeated when they needed four to win and had five wickets in hand. Four brutes bore down on opposition toes, and he took his side to the brink, then, as he did today. Not everyone is made of such stubborn stuff. Cricketers like Rangana Herath and Shaminda Eranga are earnest, hardworking and pleasant, but theirs is a road of steady cultivation and consistency. Malinga is a man for desperation.
If the plumb lbw shout off Tim Southee had been awarded, Malinga may have scripted a famous win - though he was also lucky to have dismissed Daniel Vettori. To add injury to injustice, Sri Lanka finish the day with a woeful net run rate, that will make progressing to the semi-finals difficult. Malinga is a flawed man no doubt, but he is foremost a cricketer, and if his ego drives more spells like this one, Sri Lanka fans should not mind it so much.