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How Lasith Malinga’s tactical acumen sealed the World T20 final for Sri Lanka

Lasith Malinga reacts after Sri Lanka won
Lasith Malinga chose for a new strategy — the wide-outside-the-off yorker © AFP

What was supposed to be a high-intensity match ended in an easy victory for Sri Lanka. Though Kumar Sangakkara masterminded the chase, the battle was won in overs 17 to 20 of the Indian innings. Abhishek Mukherjee explains why Lasith Malinga’s tactical skills had been instrumental in Sri Lanka’s win.

Bowlers do not make excellent captains — or at least that is the popular notion. The idea did not change despite Darren Sammy (one may argue he is an all-rounder) had lifted the last ICC World T20 2012 for his side. This time it was the case of a stand-in captain. In what turned out to be a bold, unconventional yet correct move, Dinesh Chandimal had dropped himself before the final stages of the tournament.

They could easily have asked Mahela Jayawardene or Kumar Sangakkara to lead the side in their farewell tournament, but they chose Malinga instead, perhaps with an eye on the future. In hindsight it turned out to be an excellent move.

Let us first check what Sri Lanka were aware of going into the final:

1. In Virat Kohli India had the most dangerous batsman of the tournament.

2. India had two fierce finishers in MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina.

3. Yuvraj Singh was out of form and struggles against spin, but can be lethal if the ball comes on to the bat and he gets room.

4. Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane can be dangerous starters off the block, but are not really known for batting through: they can be lured into playing false strokes.

5. The Indian bowling is hugely dependent on spinners.

Backing their batsmen

Point five was the easiest to tackle: barring the Indians the Lankans are easily the best players of spin, and though they got a bit lucky against Ravichandran Ashwin in the final, they generally dominated the spinners well. The seamers may have worried a few other sides bowling slow, but the Sri Lankans have been brought up on slow tracks. Batting was never going to be a worry for them, which was probably the biggest reason for Malinga choosing to bowl despite the wet surface.

Choking out the openers

Point four was next: the idea was to play on the patience of the openers. Malinga held himself back, letting Nuwan Kulasekera and Angelo Mathews to open the bowling. He let Kulasekera have the first go: he was, after all, the best new-ball bowler in the country, and there was a chance that he might get some swing to beat the batsmen.

Kulasekera’s first ball (to Rahane, second of the match) pitched outside off, and Rahane let it go. The next was again pitched outside off but came in; Rahane had no option but to block it out. Two dot-balls had made Rahane impatient. He tried to flick the third, and got away with it as the ball ballooned to a vacant extra-cover. Kulasekera then bowled another out-swinger; Rahane was sucked into the drive and was beaten. He flicked the last ball to keep strike.

At the other end, Mathews bowled two almost identical deliveries (back-of-length, just outside off-stump) on the trot, none of them Rahane could score off. The plan had almost come off: all that was left was the final blow.

Almost on a cue, Sangakkara came up to the stumps, aware that Rahane might step out to clear the boundary. Having run out of both patience and options, Rahane tried to slog-sweep a back-of-length delivery. Angelo had taken the pace off the ball as well: the ball hit the timber.

Rohit, on the other hand, had survived the initial overs: it seemed that he, along with Kohli, may lead India to the 150-160 zone. He kept on hitting the occasional boundary, and after ten overs India had reached 64 for one. At this stage Rohit was on 29 from 23, and he knew the last ten overs would be crucial.

The equation seems to favour Rohit. What Malinga had noticed was his discomfort against Rangana Herath: while Rohit had taken 27 from the 18 balls from the other bowlers, Herath held the upper hand. He had found Rohit’s inside edge once, and had rapped him on the pads on the next delivery.

So Herath came on: Rohit tried to step out the first ball, and Herath held it back. Rohit knew runs were critical; instead of going for the defensive, Herath tossed one up; Rohit committed the same error as Rahane’s — with slightly different results. The ball would have missed leg-stump.

Stepping out had failed; the slog-sweep had failed; what next? The inside-out shot over extra-cover? Malinga had already stationed Sachithra Senanayake there for that stroke, and Rohit fell into his hands. Once again, the perfect execution of a plan.

Choking Yuvraj

Yuvraj Singh has probably taken a lot of flak for his innings in the death overs on Sunday, but it must be remembered that he was promoted ahead of two destructive batsmen, which was a definite tactical error on MS Dhoni’s part. He had scored 60 from 43 against Australia, but how had his runs come?

In the 12 balls, Glenn Maxwell had bowled to Yuvraj he had managed a mere five without a boundary. Additionally, a mere 14 of his 60 runs had come on the off-side (from six scoring shots). It was a no-brainer: either get the off-spinner to bowl, or bowl way outside the off-stump.

Yuvraj managed 11 runs from 21 balls — all in singles. Senanayake’s ten deliveries went for just four, and the wide yorkers from Kulasekera and Malinga resulted in five from eight. They kept on bowling to Yuvraj’s weakness, and the southpaw was left helpless. Those end-overs cost India the match.

Choking Dhoni as well

With Yuvraj consuming so many dot-balls, the job became easier for Malinga. However, they still had Dhoni to contend with. Bowling to Dhoni at the end has never been an easy task: if he was given the slightest room, he could clear the ground through any zone. Even short balls or low full-tosses have gone for easy sixes.

So Malinga chose for a new strategy — the wide-outside-the-off yorker. The bowlers had to be sure of not over-pitching or bowling too close to Dhoni: Malinga was fine with full-tosses as long as they stayed out of Dhoni’s “hitting range”. He did not care if the umpire had signalled wide; that would be acceptable.

He got two from Kulasekera: both flirted with the wide-line, and Dhoni had a go at both. He probably thought the first was a slip, and banged it to long-on; when he saw an encore, he travelled across the line and tried a second cousin of a sweep; he found a leg-bye instead.

The score rested on 123 for three after 19. One big over would change things. The most feared finisher was on strike.

Malinga did not experiment: Dhoni missed the wide full-toss. The next one was called a wide. Dhoni attempted a helicopter off the one that followed, but it was too precise and too fast for that. Fortunately, Sangakkara made a mess of it and they scampered for two byes.

The next ball was an encore: another yorker outside off, another attempted helicopter, another miss — albeit without the byes.

Dhoni changed strategies. The next one, a carbon-copy of the previous ones, was played more conventionally, but lacked the trademark Dhoni power. It yielded a couple. Off the next he faced — another wide yorker — he could only play meekly to cover for a single.

Containing Kohli

This was the most difficult part. Malinga knew there was no apparent solution, given Kohli’s ominous form. His one big hope was the new ball, but barring an out-swinger from Kulasekera that had almost got his edge Kohli had survived that threat. He even got a life on 11 off Herath’s first ball when Malinga himself dropped him at mid-wicket. The shoulders did not drop.

Even after Kohli demolished Kulasekera in the 16th over Malinga kept faith. After Senanayake was through with his job of smothering Yuvraj, Malinga and Kulasekera came back. Between them they bowled the last three overs; Kohli got to face only six balls of these (he had faced two in Senanayake’s previous over as well); he was dished out six yorkers; and all he managed was six singles.

The balance act

Rotating the bowlers was a challenging ask, and Malinga rose to the occasion yet again. He tested the openers with his medium-pacers, he used Senanayake for Yuvraj, he used Herath to lure batsmen, he bowled Mathews out early, and he finished with the two bowlers who could execute his yorker-outside-off-stump strategy to the fullest.

As a result, none of the bowlers went for over 30 runs in the match. None.

Bowlers O M R W Econ
Nuwan Kulasekera

4

0

29

1

7.25

Angelo Mathews

4

0

25

1

6.25

Sachithra Senanayake

4

0

22

0

5.50

Lasith Malinga

4

0

27

0

6.75

Rangana Herath

4

0

23

1

5.75

It was game, set, and match for Malinga. He came, he saw, and he conquered.

 (Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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