Is Lasith Malinga hero or pariah? Where does Sri Lanka stand on that as a nation? Because through the course of the World Cup it has become clear that in opposition dressing rooms, in foreign stadiums, cafes, and bars, there is rarely much dispute: he is admired - even celebrated. Now, as Sri Lanka move into a more intense phase of their campaign, which increasingly appears as if it will be defined by Malinga's own form, it is a question worth pondering again.

He is an odd figure to be conflicted about. Rural folk are supposed to be simple, frill-free, straightforward. Yet of all Sri Lanka's current cricketers, it is the man from the village of Rathgama - no more than a blip en route to Galle - that prompts most back-and-forth over arrack and bites.

Sanath Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka's original southern superstar, was not so hard to parse. He is now a selector, politician, businessman, tourism ambassador and still his story is not as convoluted. Jayasuriya's motivations and his alliances are plain to see. Malinga's moods are as temperamental as the ocean that surrounds his home town. His ambitions as unquantifiable as grains of sand on the beach that bred his talent.

Is he, for example, a braggart or a recluse? Just before the beginning of the World Cup, Malinga issued as high-flying a self-appraisal as any Sri Lanka player in recent years. When asked whether the expectation that he would turn Sri Lanka's misfiring attack around was a lot to handle, he replied with: "I always play with pressure, so I don't know what pressure is." In the tournament opener a few days later, he would be carted for 84 for 0 from his 10 overs. Even after the World T20 last year, while teammates spoke of collective belief and cooperative determination, Malinga was sure to underline his own role in the triumph on a local television show.

Yet, he appears the most jaded by the public spotlight of Sri Lanka's present lot. He is the least likely to oblige fans with an autograph or photo. He has also lashed out at media for crowding him - once somewhat understandably during one of the players' annual contracts standoffs with the board. On other occasions, Malinga has been in caustic on-air arguments with radio and television journalists who posed questions he didn't like.

In recent weeks, as he has arrived at the World Cup in his least fit avatar yet, fans have reignited a Malinga debate that is a classic of the genre: "Does he care about playing for Sri Lanka still? Or is he preoccupied with the Indian Leagues that feed his ego and fund his lifestyle?" Malinga has never been the best fielder, but now, as he dives over balls in slow motion even when his captain hides him away at short fine leg, he appears a downright liability.

Malinga's defenders, who are many, excuse the extra kilograms by drawing attention to his injury struggles over the past six months. In a fragile career, Malinga's recent layoff thanks to a deteriorating ankle complaint has been among the most traumatic.

His detractors though, don't buy it. There are swimming pools and gyms to perform low-impact exercises in, they say. And diets through which to cut back and lean down. It hasn't escaped public notice that Malinga himself had made a minor gamble with his World Cup fitness. He was told early in September that his ankle needed surgery, and that he would need 16 weeks to recover. But instead of scheduling the surgery straight away, Malinga traveled to India to play in the Champions League for Mumbai Indians.

And herein is a central tenet of the Malinga story. Sri Lanka fans, by and large, dislike the IPL where Malinga is such a force. Glamour doesn't go down so well on the island, nor does the absence of their top players for eight weeks in the middle of the year. Malinga himself must be aware of this tension. Week after week every April, the Wankhede crowd chants his name with an adulation the Premadasa has rarely mustered for him.

But if Malinga has erred in his preparation, the World Cup appears to have captured his imagination now. Sri Lanka chose not to train before the England match in Wellington thanks largely to their hectic recent schedule, but in the week prior to the Melbourne match, Malinga had been unusually intense at training, staying longer than any other bowler to practice his yorkers. Captain Angelo Mathews had testified to the fire that still burns within his ace bowler. "He is the one working the hardest in the nets," Mathews had said. "He is bowling for hours so he can get his rhythm back."

This World Cup is a special one for the team. It is their final opportunity to make Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene World Cup winners, when those two had done so much to take Sri Lanka close twice before. But at 31, with a body that is falling apart, and a wonderful but taxing action, it could be Malinga's final jaunt at the tournament as well. He has six wickets in the past two matches now. Perhaps in the next few weeks he will have balls bearing down on toes and he will rattle chases like he used to, and maybe he will be admired as much in his island, as he is across its waters.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando