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MS Dhoni: Matheesha Pathirana 'is an excellent death bowler'

The Super Kings captain believes the Sri Lankan's low release gives him a greater margin for error

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Lasith Malinga's last ball in the IPL was a bewitching slower ball to trap Shardul Thakur lbw and defend one run off the final ball of an IPL final. Three years later, Baby Malinga, Matheesha Pathirana, trapped Shubman Gill lbw with his first ball in the IPL.
A similar low release, accuracy with the yorker, and a slower one gave Pathirana figures of 3.1-0-24-2 on debut, which included wickets of Gill and Hardik Pandya. His captain MS Dhoni - the captain at the receiving end of Malinga's sorcery in 2019 - was impressed with what he saw. Having faced Malinga for so long, and also Pathirana in the nets, he should know.
"He is an excellent death bowler," Dhoni told Star Sports. "A bit similar to Malinga. Also what happens with his action, the margin of error for him is quite big. With a slingy action he doesn't get a lot of bounce. Which means even if he commits an error of one yard, it is not like it will hit the middle of the bat. It wouldn't bounce a lot.
"Also with his action it is slightly difficult to pick. And he has got that slower one also. So you have to watch him very carefully. Which means when you spend those extra seconds watching the ball and he is bowling at a decent pace, it becomes quite difficult to consistently hit him."
Super Kings coach Stephen Fleming was more reserved in his praise but excited to work with Pathirana. "We were really looking forward to him playing today," Fleming said at the post-match press conference. "And he obviously got success immediately. He is very young. We know who he has similarities with, which is big shoes to fill. But he had a great debut. We are very pleased for him. It's a unique skill, isn't it? Learning to coach that and how to use that is one of the challenges. But it was great for him to get a game for us today."
Pathirana might have similarities with Malinga but his is an even more difficult action. "I think he is an even more extreme example of Malinga," Daniel Vettori said on ESPNcricinfo's analysis show T20 Time:Out. "He sort of reaches back and doesn't even look like he is looking at the target. Whereas Malinga felt like he still had his eyes on what he is doing. But he obviously caught batsmen by surprise. Shubman Gill and Hardik Pandya are quality players.
"That surprise element still comes from the ball coming from a completely different angle to the one you are used to. His accuracy was good enough and once he adds those variations he can be the sort of bowler who disrupts the T20 game. I don't think he is ever going to be an economical-type bowler but he can certainly come back, take wickets and put the fear of god into some tailenders."
Super Kings signed Pathirana up as a replacement for the injured Adam Milne, which means he's currently only contracted for this season, but if Fleming is excited about working with Pathirana, there could be plans to retain him.
Piyush Chawla believes it will be the right move. "To be very honest when you see one or two games, you don't look at performance but you look at temperament and talent," Chawla said. "He actually showed he has the talent. You can always give him more time and he can play accordingly. Just make sure he is attending those camps early and coming to play those practice matches early. So he showed the temperament and skill that yes, he belongs. Obviously with time he will improve when he adds more variation to his skills. So he will definitely be a better bowler."
Pathirana's impressive debut does raise the question of whether he could have been tried sooner. Vettori certainly felt so. "The way they used [Dwaine] Pretorius for an extended period of time and then [Dwayne] Bravo had some injuries, [Chris] Jordan and Milne early on... So he was certainly the last cab off the rank. Potentially when they are out of the tournament you would have thought someone like him could have been thrown into the mix just to see what he could do. Tonight he showed he can be effective at this high level."
Vettori perhaps meant to say Pathirana could have been tried when Super Kings had only an academic chance and not when they were well and truly out. Now that they are properly out of the tournament, Super Kings have gone to the extent of giving players chances at the expense of having the ideal combination in the middle. An example of that was promoting N Jagadeesan ahead of Shivam Dube.
"We could have pushed Shivam up the order but that defeats the purpose of giving Jaggi a game," Dhoni said. "If it was a tactical decision proper, midway into the tournament, we would have pushed the left-hander up the order. But we wanted Jaggi to have some time in the middle.
"We will try to give guys ample time in the middle. At times when you are at this stage you feel, oh, you want to win one more game, but at the same time you want to give a chance to guys who we haven't been able to feature in the XI. Still try to pick a good XI. Not like we are playing a lopsided XI. But in the coming game also we will look to do that."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo