Gather round, kiddos. Let me tell you a story about Sri Lankan cricket. What would you like to hear? The story about how Dimuth Karunaratne, who hadn't played ODI cricket for four years, became captain for the 2019 World Cup. Ah, that is a good one. Crazy, no? Unbelievable even. All the things you want in a good story. Or what about the tale of the Sri Lankan selectors who picked about five wrong players in a squad of 15 for the tournament? That is not that hard to believe, I suppose, but it's not bad as well.
But actually, lamayi, the one I'm thinking about is even better than those two. It's dramatic. It's funny. It's colourful. It is hauntingly sad and fabulously uplifting at the same time. Like the best stories, it has so many layers. Most of all, it's beyond insane.
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Let me tell you about the time Angelo Mathews took a wicket with his first ball of the World Cup, and won the match for Sri Lanka.
So there once was a player called Mathews. He was captaining the team around late 2018, if I remember right. Then he ran out two team-mates at the Asia Cup, and the selectors sacked him from the captaincy, and dropped him from the team. As if that was all not enough, the coach who had asked him to become captain in the first place, essentially called him fat in the most roundabout and traumatic way possible.
This sounds like this should be the ending of the story, no? It's not. Just wait. This is just the start.
So this Mathews mopes around for about a month after being left out of the limited-overs teams, but soon enough, he gets picked for Tests. Fellow is still bloody seething at the coach. So when he makes a couple of half-centuries in the Test series against England, he points to his bat and does a yapping sign with his gloves, to show that he's "letting the bat do the talking". You know these young buggers, no? Always have to make a big show of everything.
In the next series, in New Zealand, he does something even bigger. With Sri Lanka battling to save the Test, fellow bats a whole entire day with the same partner, against one of the best attacks in the world. He gets to a hundred, and guess what? He drops to the ground, does 10 push ups, looks at the dressing room, and flexes his biceps. Can you imagine? Bugger is basically at open war with the coach. He's telling him: look how strong I am. Look how fit. I can bat an entire day, and another session besides. He even started bowling again in that series. Foo! Fellow was giving his critics a nice slap.
Oh. What does he do in the next Test the following week, you ask? He tears a hamstring while running a two and is ruled out of all cricket for another four months, of course.
Now, Mathews' calves and hamstrings are not like your legs or my legs. He played a lot of cricket in three years when he was captain, and ever since then he seemed to be missing more cricket than he played, because of injuries. He stopped bowling for months on end. He broke down as soon as he started again. It got to the stage where he would get injured if he even thought about bowling.
So eventually, Mathews made it back into the one-day team, thanks to the sacking of the selectors who had sacked him. During this period there is so much infighting within the national team, that the sports minister gets Mathews and some other senior players together for a chat after Lasith Malinga's wife makes fun of Thisara Perera on Facebook (this is a crazy story for another time).
Anyway, Mathews rolls up to the World Cup, and Sri Lanka would love for him to be bowling. They could really do with the seam movement he offers with the new ball, and the control he gives during the middle overs. If they got overs from him, they could have played an extra batsman, which could have solved some of their batting issues (but probably not, though, who are we kidding?).
"Then in it comes, a 115kph, floating petal of a delivery - a ball Pooran should send screaming through the covers. Instead, through some quirk of physics, he edges it"
But of course, either fellow doesn't want to bowl, or the trainers have told him not to. It's too much of a risk. He gets into the team because of his batting anyway. And look at the way he moves around the field. Children in the stands have become middle-aged slobs with beer guts in the time it takes him to complete one chase down to the boundary.
Now, listen. Remember all that. Because it all comes to a head in the game against West Indies. Sri Lanka have batted well for the first time in the tournament and put up a big score, but what do you know, these Carribbean fellows seem desperate to chase it down. One young guy, Nicholas Pooran, is playing the innings of his life, hitting every bowler - the great Malinga included - to every part of a pretty big ground in Durham. They only have to get 31 off three overs, and the Sri Lankan captain has a huge problem: there is no one to bowl two of the last three overs. The selectors have screwed up the squad so much that the only specialist spinner they've brought on tour has been taken apart by the West Indies middle order. He's going at well over seven an over. There's no way he can bowl his full 10.
And then it happens. Mathews goes to the captain. Not the captain that replaced him as captain. Oh no. This is the captain that replaced the captain that replaced the captain that replaced him. All in the space of nine months. He says to this captain: "I know I haven't been bowling, but I have experience." So this sometime allrounder, who now has legs so fragile that you can't even look at them for more than five seconds straight because even that is too much of a strain, playing in a World Cup he was so set on not bowling in that he'd not delivered a single ball in the nets for eight entire months, playing for a team coached by a guy he's recently been at war with, getting ready to bowl the high-pressure 48th over in a match that the opposition is very nearly winning.
Eight months! Not a single rolling over of the arm for eight months. How does he possibly hope to even land it on the pitch? Forget bowling in a high-pressure international - if a normal person tried to so much as scratch their nose after not having done it for eight months, they'd probably get it so wrong they'd punch themselves in the face.
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But, incredibly, Mathews steams in almost from the sightscreen like a stampede of water buffalo, wind flowing throw his hair, a kinetic portrait of machismo, and hurls down a monstrous 150kph bouncer that has flames coming out of it, which Pooran has no choice but to fend straight to gully.
No, I'm kidding, of course. That would be crazy for Mathews. But what actually happens is in some ways, even crazier. Instead, our guy ambles in, off his very modest run up, taking the most ginger steps. Pooran, who has been middling everything like he has a bazooka hidden in his bat, awaits him, low in his stance, like a wound-up spring, but muscular. And, in it comes, a 115kph, floating flower petal of a delivery. (Most fast bowlers have slower balls that are a good 5kph faster than this.) It wafts in with the breeze, pitches on an utterly unintimidating length, squirts off the surface, a little wide of off stump - a ball Pooran in this form should send screaming through the covers. Instead, through some inexplicable quirk of physics, he edges it. The keeper completes the catch. Mathews is punching the air with more vigour than he bowled that ball with. Team-mates coming into mob him are at risk of getting their lights knocked out.
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The match is basically over. West Indies fans have their heads in their hands. Sri Lankans are screaming and dancing. On air, Kumar Sangakkara, who will have known every detail that led up to this wicket, is trying to contain his giggles and failing. Nothing was riding on this match in reality, but for half an hour it had felt like everything was. Pooran, out for 118 off 103 balls, is devastated. Malinga bowls the next over, but even if he concedes three sixes, it doesn't matter - there's another over from flower-petal bowler Mathews coming up.
Sri Lanka win by 23, and there's dancing all around the ground. And that, children, is the story of the craziest ball of the 2019 World Cup.