England ran out comfortable winners in Dambulla, but Lasith Malinga gave them a scare with a sensational return to form. Patrick Noone looks at how the old master shone once again.
At 35 years of age and after 14 years of international cricket, Lasith Malinga has had plenty of ups and downs. When he missed nearly two years of ODI cricket from November 2015 until last year’s Champions Trophy, many thought his career was tailing away like one of his trademark yorkers.
Malinga underwhelmed in that tournament, taking just three wickets in three matches as Sri Lanka were eliminated at the first hurdle. It was surely the end, a tournament too far for one of the greats of the limited overs game. Sri Lanka had struggled to replace Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara – who wouldn’t? – and Malinga was one of the last men standing; a reminder of a golden era as Sri Lanka slipped into steady decline.
After remaining in the side beyond the Champions Trophy until Sri Lanka’s home series against India in September 2017, Malinga did not feature in any of his country’s next four ODI series. His return to the side for this year’s Asia Cup hinted that there was a glimmer of the old Malinga still burning. Two wickets in his first over against Bangladesh, including a signature yorker that sent Shakib Al-Hasan’s stumps flying and Malinga was back in the groove.
But that paled in comparison to his performance today in Dambulla, where a clear thought process and well-executed plan led to his first five-wicket haul in ODIs since 2014. Malinga’s bowling performance today could be divided into three sections: fast and consistent in the first Powerplay, short and hostile in the middle overs, full and devastating at the death.
His grouping of deliveries in the first ten overs was that of an orthodox line and length seamer. In fact, 53% of the deliveries he bowled in that opening spell were on a good line and length, more than double his career average of 24% at that stage of the innings. In the middle overs, he dragged his average length back from 7.3m to 8.0m. That change had the desired effect of containing the run rate as Malinga conceded just nine runs off his three overs in the middle of the innings.
However, it was at the death that we saw the Malinga of old. He pushed his length up dramatically which saw him take 4-16 in his last four overs. England’s batsmen were given a reminder of just how potent he could be as Eoin Morgan and Moeen Ali were dismissed in successive balls, before Chris Woakes and Liam Dawson became Malinga’s fourth and fifth victims in his penultimate over.
Malinga also demonstrated fine control over his speeds. At the start of the innings, his average speed was at its highest, but that was owing to the fact that he did not bowl a single slower ball. The difference between his fastest and his slowest ball in his opening spell was just 12kph. Conversely at the death, his average speed was lower than at the other stages of the innings but that was the period in which he bowled both his fastest and his slowest ball of the innings. It was a level of variation that England were unable to pick up and his slower balls accounted for three of his four wickets in the last ten overs.
Malinga’s efforts were ultimately in vain as Sri Lanka came up short, losing by 31 runs on the Duckworth/Lewis/Stern method. But it was nonetheless a remarkable comeback from a player who had been so readily written off by so many. Even during the 15 overs that were possible during the first ODI on Wednesday, Malinga looked out of sorts and was wayward with his line and length; a world away from the highly-skilled exponent of his craft we saw today.
It is testament to Malinga’s performance that England were restricted to something resembling a manageable total. At 54-1 after ten overs, the visitors were on course for a total in excess of 300. In fact, since the 2015 World Cup, today was only the sixth occasion that England have failed to pass 300 having reach 50 in the first ten overs. That they posted 278 was thanks in no small part to Sri Lanka’s returning star, who proved he still has what it takes to make an impact at the highest level.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.