Ben Jones analyses how the Sri Lankan legend is still cutting it in the elite.
This was supposed to be a very modern World Cup. After four years of flat pitches and high scores, this competition was presented as a new breed of ODI players, players with different strategies and philosophies about the game to their predecessors.
In part it’s been like that. Centuries from dashing modern players like Jason Roy, blitzes from lower order unorthodox hitters like Hardik Pandya, have shown the best of the modern game. But there has, pleasingly, been a place for the old guard. Mashrafe Mortaza has lead Bangladesh with skill and experience. Chris Gayle is still one of the most prized wickets in the competition. And Lasith Malinga has decimated the world No.1 side. Yesterday, he took England apart, in the way only Malinga can – with devastating yorkers.
Yorkers – deliveries pitching between 1m and 2m from the stumps – are the iconic delivery of white ball cricket, and Malinga is one of the men who has made that the case. He’s bowled around 500 yorkers in his ODI career, and attempted many, many more. As you’d expect, he’s continuing that pattern in this World Cup. Only Mohammad Saifuddin has bowled a higher proportion of his deliveries as yorkers in this tournament.
It’s not even just the pure yorkers which have dominated Malinga’s gameplan – it’s been full bowling generally. Yesterday, he sent down a sharp bouncer early on in the piece, mainly just to let the batsman known he still has it up his sleeve, but generally, Malinga bowls almost exclusively full. No other seam bowler in this World Cup has pitched up more often. His confidence in pushing the ball right up at the batsman’s toes – the “slot”, as some bowlers refer to it, in fear – is unmatched by any of his younger contemporaries.
Malinga understands how these things work, how to bowl on these sorts of surfaces. He knows that you have to target the stumps, because these modern batsmen don’t make many mistakes. When they do err, you have to make it count. A staggering 24% of Malinga’s deliveries in this World Cup would have gone on to hit the stumps – no other seamer has recorded a higher figure.
It’s reflected, clearly, in the way he’s picked up his wickets. Almost all of his wickets in this competition have been from deliveries in around the stumps and the batsman’s pads. Yesterday, Bairstow fell to an inswinger that swerved in on him, viciously – it’s not new, you know it’s coming, and it’s almost impossible to stop.
It’s not only the length, of course. It’s the trajectory of the ball as well, the swing he gets through the air. Malinga’s average ball in this World Cup has swung 0.99° – only two men have averaged more. That movement makes the difference between a guy just putting it in the slot, and a guy able to consistently threaten the best batsmen in the world.
Lasith Malinga gets it. We talk about bowlers being canny, and about using their experience to be more precise. Malinga is not a fit man. He is not, in the typical way, an athlete – what he is, is an artist.
He knows what’s available to him – not extreme pace, not a vicious bouncer – so he eliminates the waste in his game. Everything is geared towards squeezing the last bit out of his talent. For as long as we have him, we should treasure him, one of the greats of the format.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.