Remember that one guy? That great Sri Lanka fingerspinner
? Body like an overfull water balloon, heart as big as the ocean? Well, let's not mention him here, because there's a new left-arm spinner, and at 24, Lasith Embuldeniya
is just making his way. There's already been talk of large shoes needing to be filled and mantles begging to be taken up. But these are unfair expectations, right? Even if the old man is
Embuldeniya's cricketing hero. And no matter how much about this young bowler there is to like.
Maybe they will be different kinds of left-arm operators, anyway. Embuldeniya has a high release point, puts a lot of revolutions on the ball, gets more loop than most, and because of his height (and maybe a touch of overspin), good bounce on top of all that. That is the Embuldeniya elevator pitch. But there's more to him, such as an air of maturity beyond his years, and a stubborn doughtiness. These sound like profoundly unsexy virtues, but then Embuldeniya bowls slow left-arm, so he's already chosen the unsexiest path in cricketing life.
He seems to have really leaned into that whole thing, too. Have you ever seen him properly celebrate a wicket? No? That's because he doesn't, really. He's dismissed both England openers for single figures in each of the three innings England have batted this series; Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley out for 4, 2, 0, 9, 8 and 5. He's only in his tenth Test, so it's a thing of mild wonder that Embuldeniya seems to have picked up not just one, but two bunnies.
But upon getting the wicket of Crawley on Saturday evening, Embuldeniya just walked, neutral-faced, to his teammates. A dad of two pushing a trolley loaded with rice, dhal and milk powder through the supermarket. Shirt buttons done up all the way to the top.
It is the almost-impeccable lines, plus the drift he gets, and the turn off the surface that have got him his seven wickets so far in this innings. None of the remaining Sri Lanka bowlers - not even the vastly more experienced Dilruwan Perera
- have bowled as well to batsmen who have just arrived as Embuldeniya. Five of his victims never made it to 15.
Virtually everyone who has faced him has played and missed liberally since Embuldeniya gets dramatic, fast turn, even when he pitches on the straight, in a way that no other spinner in this game has quite managed. Aside from Joe Root and Jos Buttler, both of whom have rocking reverse-sweeps (and as such, are the only batsmen dismissed by other means) no England batsman has been comfortable. To the lefties lower down in England's batting order, he's had the off-side rough to work with.
It seems almost cruel to say on a day in which he was almost Sri Lanka's single wicket-taking threat, but there are things Embuldeniya could work on. Five of his dismissals were catches to slip off the outside edge (four of those victims were right-handers). But what if he learned to better disguise his slider, which he bowls infrequently anyway, and made that more of a threat? For his idol - that guy we decided we weren't going to mention - the straighter ball was essentially the poison-tipped dagger in his armoury; the weapon so many underestimated, but still wound up succumbing to. On tracks that turn as substantially as this, balls that float under the radar on to pads and into stumps are a subtle magic.
Embuldeniya might learn, too, that there are times in his career in which he is going to be doubted. He had taken a five-wicket haul
in the 2019 tour of South Africa, where his contributions were instrumental to that surreal series win, and yet he was overlooked for both Tests there over the last month, with the team's management picking legspinner Wanindu Hasaranga instead. Why? Because wristspinners have mad X-factor, right? Whatever Embuldeniya makes of his career from here, he's never going to have that
said about him.
It probably doesn't help that in true slow left-arm style, he comes to press conferences after his most successful haul ever, and gives answers like this: "Thanks for your question. I've done a lot of spot bowling and that's how I've improved little by little. In the match I bowled line and length and made small, small variations. There was help from the wicket. I landed the ball on the same spot and hoped the wicket would do the rest."
Buttoned-up to the point of being adorable. But, you know, not sexy. Though he's already looking up to, and swimming in the considerable wake of, someone who showed that he doesn't need to be.