A glimpse of the old Slinga Malinga
The pacer's powers might be on the wane, but if he bowls as well as he did on Saturday, Sri Lanka could get a final lap from their warhorse
They came in huge numbers with the Lasith Malinga wig, only to find out the long locks had been chopped shorter. And while the disappointment of Sri Lanka's hiding left the fans sour, they went back with some consolation - of having watched their dear 'Slinga' take flight again.
The kiss of the ball as he ran in - check. The late movement - check. The roar and fist pump after a wicket - check. Two wickets in an over - check. The slow, dipping yorker - check. Heck, the only thing missing was the Slinga misfield and a clumsy attempt to retrieve the ball. There were bigger fielding culprits on the day, and that no fingers could have been pointed at Malinga told you a story.
The humidity in Dubai had touched 90% when he took the new ball. But that isn't new to him. He has toiled for a decade-and-a-half bowling on listless Khettarama and Galle tracks in such weather, or at times in Mumbai's sapping humidity, where he is almost as much a crowd favourite as Sachin Tendulkar is.
The temperature of 41 C felt closer to 50 as he ran in to bowl the first over. A crowd of 25,000 made it even more of a cauldron. The papare band was missing, as was his free-flowing mane that bounces up and down as he runs in, but everything else was in rhythm. His four-wicket haul was undone by poor death bowling by the others who bore the brunt of Mushfiqur Rahim's stunning pyrotechnics, but at least it gave Sri Lanka the hope that their limited-overs talisman's fuel tank isn't yet running on reserve.
While it could be a stretch to say he rewound the clock, the Sri Lankan fans, and most importantly the selectors, now know he's still hungry, even with the few extra pounds around his midriff.
He wasn't by any means leaner than when he was seen in Sri Lanka colours last time, more than a year ago, but you could see he was still sharp - hurling those late indippers at 140kph - and enjoying being in battle. And yet, it's not hard to believe Malinga was a doubt for the Asia Cup.
The selectors have been mighty impressed with 21-year-old tearaway Lahiru Kumara, who bowled 145kph deliveries that spat at batsmen's ribs in the West Indies not so long ago. Nuwan Pradeep isn't only quick, but can also swing the new ball wickedly when the stars align. While that is unlikely to happen in Dubai, he and Kumara would have still been a shoo-in had they not been injured. And so by default, the selectors found a calling card in Malinga.
The message they sent out to him was simple: we will put you in a squad. If you turn up and play well enough, you will be considered again. And so he turned up and played six matches in nine days for Kandy in the domestic T20 competition, opening the bowling in each of them. Prior to that, he was the highest wicket-taker for Montreal Tigers (13 in six matches at an economy rate of 6.41) in the Global T20 Canada.
Nothing symbolises Malinga's drive more than his willingness to shelve his ego when Mumbai Indians informed him of his non-retention for IPL 2018 in January. Here was a simple yet clear message being handed out to an MVP by his paymasters, a prospect unimaginable three years ago. What made it even trickier was the call couldn't have been taken without the consent of head coach Mahela Jayawardene, Malinga's good friend and Sri Lanka team-mate for more than a decade.
If Mumbai are to institute a Hall of Fame, it's unlikely they would look past Malinga for the first set of inductees. So for him to accept the message and continue to mentor the franchise's bowling group, even if his own goal was to continue playing, was laudable. But in accepting the IPL deal, he also put his Sri Lanka career at risk, missing the Super Provincial one-day tournament.
Then there was public mud-slinging with the sports minister commenting about his fitness. Malinga isn't quite the grin-and-bear-it individual, except when he turns back with a wry smile when a batsman hits him to the boundary. The powers are on the wane, but if he still turns up and bowls as well as he did on Saturday, Sri Lanka could get a final lap from their warhorse.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo