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Almost invisible Suranga Lakmal not a man for the glory spells

He's no Shoaib Akhtar but one had to watch him close to notice how good he was, and his very few magic balls

Suranga Lakmal in full flight, Zimbabwe v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Harare, 1st day, January 27, 2020

Suranga Lakmal in full flight  •  AFP

Did you watch Suranga Lakmal bowl? No, really. Did you watch him closely? It's ok. It's human. Be honest. If anyone wouldn't really mind, it's Lakmal.
Our man captained five Tests for Sri Lanka. In the third of these, he did not bowl at all in the first innings. In the second innings, he sent down just two overs.
Why? Because he is who he is, and felt largely surplus to requirement. In this 2018 series, South Africa had surrendered en masse to Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera in the first Test. They were nosediving spectacularly again on a bone-dry SSC pitch, until, inside 35 overs, they were all out for 124, three spinners having bowled right through the innings. Lakmal's two overs in the second dig were mainly to give the spinners a break.
That's Lakmal concentrate. Rational. Ego-free. Almost invisible. Bring a great ball of his to mind? Yeah, neither can I. Great bowling performances, though, there's the thing. You don't have to bowl magic balls to bowl a good spell. And that is where Lakmal lived. Draw a venn diagram. The space common to "bowls line and length", "swings it a bit", "seams a little". Colour that segment in. That's Lakmal territory.
Perhaps, you'll look at that Test average of 36.38, and think he was just a plodder. If you were being unkind, you'd say he looks like one. Long of hair, longer of face, a gangly tumbling of over-long limbs - he's no Shoaib Akhtar. He's not even on that spectrum. He never tried to be. A gentle away-seamer, a smirk when the batter misses it. A turning of the heel, returning to his crease, a doing of all of the above again. You had to watch him to notice how good he was. Otherwise, he was almost invisible.
Almost invisible to the Sri Lanka public, because his bowling only really got to really fly overseas, where Sri Lanka generally lost. A 5 for 63 in Port Elizabeth, 5 for 54 in Christchurch, 3 for 25 in Bridgetown, 4 for 39 in Port Elizabeth again, 5 for 47 in North Sound. Since 2016, he's averaged 28.74 away from home.
In that 2019 series that Sri Lanka won in South Africa, which perhaps should go down as their greatest Test triumph ever, there he was, averaging 25.5, keeping a lid on the opposition scoring while the younger bowlers hunted (successfully) for wickets around him. Not a man for the glory spells. The hard ones. In Galle, when nothing was happening, and there was a mild hope the ball would reverse. At the SSC, when the batters have started sweeping well, and the runs are flowing too quickly, and you need a guy to bring the rate down again, even if there's no real chance of a wicket.
When all you want is for balance to be restored, which for Sri Lanka, is a lot of the time in overseas Tests, it is where he shines. Those are the Lakmal overs.
He probably would have got more overs if other fast bowlers had stayed with him. Sri Lanka would have prepared some slightly seamer-friendly tracks, if they had a seam attack, instead of a lone, reliable seamer. What could have he been if Nuwan Pradeep didn't injure his hamstrings that often, or Shaminda Eranga didn't have a kink in his elbow, or Dhammika Prasad's shoulder hadn't fallen apart, or even if Lahiru Kumara had delivered on his early promise?
Instead, what Lakmal got at home were intensively spin-friendly pitches, on which he, and most others who bowled at more than 110kph, were sometimes redundant. In some ways, it is typical that Lakmal is right at the centre of an intentional erasure of seam bowling in Sri Lanka's home Tests.
He may get a fair showing from the pink ball, though. Across the two day-night Tests Sri Lanka have played, the first in Barbados, the second in Dubai, Lakmal averages 19.13, playing a significant role in winning both matches.
At 35, he's choosing to look after his financial future, moving to Derbyshire, instead of staying with the Sri Lanka national side, who pay him less than $60,000 a year, not including match fees. Here, for the first time, he appears to be acting in (understandable) self-interest.
But in this last Test that he will play - against India - however, remote Sri Lanka's possibility of pulling off an upset, we should do something most of us don't really do with Lakmal. Watch him. Watch him close. There are very few magic balls. Only good spells. We can meet him there. He deserves that much.

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