Lasith Malinga: The Sri Lankan freak show from humble beginnings

Lasith Malinga © Getty Images

Lasith Malinga, born on August 28, 1983, is an enigmatic Sri Lankan fast bowler with one of the most unusual bowling actions ever seen. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the career of the man with the slingshot action, popularly known as ‘Slinga’ Malinga.

The batsman takes guard and waits for him to begin his run-up. He sets off: his run-up smoothly transforming from a jog into a sprint, his curly golden-streaked locks swirling in the wind, and by the time he crosses the umpire, he is steaming in like a hurricane on rampage. As he begins his bowling stride, his right foot, which is the back foot pivots square of the runner’s wickets; it’s astonishing that he hasn’t jumbled up some ligaments in there. But of course, the batsman has no time to notice. Within microseconds, his right bowling arm swings in an angle parallel to the ground, what they call a round-arm action, and the ball is released almost from the line of middle-stump. Before the batsman can say, “What the…”, the ball has zoomed in, swinging deviously in the air and pitched right where the batsman’s feet are. If the batsman is brave, reactive enough and values his wicket, and his toes, he manages to somehow get wood before bone and blocks it; if not, the ball crashes into his boot or stumps. Either way, he’s a gonner. Lasith Malinga breaks into a smile and welcomes his ecstatic teammates. What’s all the fuss about, he says. I do what I do.

Lasith Malinga: The Sri Lankan freak show from humble beginnings

Lasith Malinga delivering the ball with his round low-arm action © Getty Images

Humble beginnings

Rathgama is a coastal village in the south-western tip of Sri Lanka, 12 km from Galle. Its population barely crosses into four figures. Its people are cricket crazy, keeping to terms with the rest of the Emerald Isle, and regularly engage in games in the coconut groves with a softball. The breeze from the nearby ocean is heavy and, thus, a softball delivered with a normal high-arm action would probably swing away for a wide. Thus, the only option for Malinga, who grew up in this tiny village, was to develop something unusual which would negate the breeze. The other theory of Malinga’s legend is that he developed his round-arm action as a result of swimming across a river in his village to get to his aunt’s house and to pluck king coconuts off the tall palms. Whatever be the case, Malinga, the phenomenon, is a product of a small fishing hamlet in Sri Lanka, far away from the advances of cricket clubs such as the Sinhalese Sports Club or the relatively nearer Galle Cricket Club.

Malinga was already 13 when he started playing softball cricket. At 17, in just his second match playing with a leather ball, he took six wickets for Vidaloka College. His feat impressed the umpire, who was also the principal of Mahinda College, which was famous for its cricket in Galle. The principal immediately summoned Malinga to meet him the next day, and it was here that his journey had begun. Actually, the roots were laid much earlier when Malinga trained under Champaka Ramanayake, a former Sri Lanka bowler and fast-bowling coach, for three months before he joined Mahinda College. Ramanayake used to be a player-coach at Galle Cricket Club in those days. Once, he strained his neck and asked Malinga to be his replacement. All too readily, Malinga took up the opportunity and scalped eight wickets in the match — his first time playing with a leather ball.

In 2001, Malinga was picked as a net bowler for the Sri Lankan cricket team. The unknown 18-year-old charged in and struck nearly all the batsmen he bowled to in different places. Ajit Jayasekera, the Sri Lankan team manager remembered the incident, as quoted by ESPNcricinfo: “The guys were shocked. They were saying, ‘There is some bugger from Galle and we can’t spot him, we must tell Champaka not to bring him.’ They were worried that he was going to injure someone.”

Malinga would go on to instil that fear in nearly every batsman he bowled to. His technique at the time was so simple, and yet so lethal: all he did was bowl as fast and as straight and as full as possible. For variety’s sake, he would throw in a bouncer here and there. But otherwise, he would just target the batsman’s feet and aim to make a hole through them. Later in his career, he even revealed that he practiced by keeping a pair of boots where he wanted to pitch the ball and aimed at them while bowling.

International debut

Thankfully for the Sri Lankan team, he was on their side and their batsmen would have to face him only in the nets. A Test debut beckoned in July 2004 against Australia at Darwin. Malinga was, of course, unheard of when he first took the ball in his hand. By the end of that match, everybody knew his name. In the first innings, Malinga, with jet-black hair and a middle-partition et al, tore in and got Darren Lehmann out caught off a no-ball, before trapping him leg-before with a screeching full-length delivery. Adam Gilchrist was then felled with a fast bouncer down the leg, which the wicketkeeper-batsman could just edge to his counterpart behind the sticks, going for a pull. In the second innings, Malinga got Lehmann’s wicket again — this time caught behind — and added three more including Damien Martyn, Shane Warne and Michael Kasprowicz. His match figures for his first Test read six for 92.

Even though Australia won the match, Malinga was the talk of the home team’s dressing room. “He’s certainly different — we haven’t faced someone like him for a while,” said Lehmann, after the match. Gilchrist, in a touching gesture, went over to the Sri Lankan dressing room and passed on a stump from the game, saying, “This is for that boy Malinga.” Glenn McGrath, meanwhile, who had figures of five for 37 in the first innings, wasn’t too impressed and said that Malinga would be found out on flat wickets, given his none-too-impressive height (5’7″). Challenge accepted.

Malinga and his slingshot action soon became the talk of the cricketing world. During Sri Lanka’s tour of New Zealand in 2004–2005, the Kiwi batsmen found his action so hard to read that captain Stephen Fleming even asked the umpire to change his belt and tie to a lighter colour so that they would be better able to see the ball being released from Malinga’s hand, which released the ball right in front of the official. The request was denied.

Malinga soon developed into Sri Lanka’s fastest Test bowler, regularly clocking in the high 140s and low 150s. He cemented a place in both the Test and One-Day International (ODI) squads and bamboozled batsmen around the world. As the years passed and his hair transformed from straight and black to curly and golden-locked, his speed lessened from the 140-150s to the 130-140s, but what wasn’t compromised was his accuracy and unpredictability. He soon developed a slower off-cutter with no evident change in action, which further deceived batsmen. While the general perception was that he was a block-hole bowler, he could bowl six different deliveries in an over, as he showed on the big stage during his first World Cup in 2007 in the Caribbean.

Four in four and other ‘tricks

The news of Bob Woolmer’s mysterious death had engulfed the Caribbean isles and taken the spotlight away from the game when Sri Lanka met South Africa at Georgetown, Guyana. But Malinga shifted the focus back to cricket via a terrific spell in the death overs when the Lankans seemed down and out. South Africa needed a mere four runs to win from 32 balls, with Jacques Kallis batting handsomely on 86 with Shaun Pollock for company, when Malinga intervened. In a dastardly duration of four deliveries, he castled Pollock with a slowish yorker; got Andrew Hall caught at cover with a fast and full one just outside off; made the well-settled Kallis to edge his shorter and wider one to the ‘keeper; and finally baffled Makhaya Ntini with a screaming yorker.

It was the first time in the history of international cricket that a bowler had taken four wickets in as many deliveries. However, Malinga’s histrionics were academically put in vain as the Proteas just scraped through to a nine-wicket victory they should have achieved much more easily. “It was pretty stressful,” South African captain Graeme Smith, who was watching from the dressing room, admitted to The Age. “I even caught one or two of the guys having a cigarette.” However, for Malinga, it wasn’t enough as his team had lost the match. He told the BBC: “I am happy to take those wickets but we have lost.”

‘Slinga’ Malinga, as he soon came to be known as, made a reputation of being a bowler who enjoyed and thrived on taking wickets in a cluster. He added two more hat-tricks to his repertoire: against Kenya in the 2011 World Cup and then later against Australia at Colombo that same year, thus becoming the first bowler to take three hat-tricks in an ODI and also the first to take two ‘tricks in the World Cup.

Malinga also shined in the shortest format of the game, where he is one of the most sought after players in domestic Twenty20 leagues around the world. He is one of the most popular players in the Indian Premier League (IPL) where he plays for the Mumbai Indians. He became a darling of the Mumbai fans in the fourth season of the tournament when he took five for 13 against the Delhi Daredevils in an eye-popping display. “Ma-lin-ga…Ma-lin-ga” has become one of the most popular chants of the tournament, across all venues where he steps foot on. As of May 2013, Malinga has 100 wickets in 70 games and is the highest wicket-taker in the history of the IPL.

However, his best ever figures in the T20 format are six wickets for seven runs for the Melbourne Stars in the Big Bash League. It is thus no surprise that he was named the vice-captain of the Sri Lankan T20 team in October 2012.

Malinga retired from the longer format after the 2011 World Cup to concentrate on his limited overs career. Today, after almost a decade in international cricket, batsmen still haven’t been able to figure him out. If you increased the number of balls in an over to 12, Malinga would still come up with enough variation to keep the batsman on his toes (and off it) with negligible change in action. It comes as no surprise that he is one of the most feared and destructive bowlers in the world.

In Photos: Lasith Malinga’s cricketing career

(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)