It was 28 March 2007. South Africa were cruising to what looked like a comfortable win over Sri Lanka at the Providence Stadium in Guyana during the World Cup. In the 45th over, the Proteas needed just four runs to win from 32 deliveries with five wickets in hand. You’d think that would be a walk in the park. On 99 occasions out of 100, it would be.
Bowling at the time was 23-year-old Lasith Malinga. While he had already made quite an impression – coming into this game with 46 wickets from 31 ODIs – it was his slinging action that caught the eye. His action, with a low release point, would help him become arguably the greatest death overs bowler ever.
Off the fifth delivery of the over, Malinga outfoxed Shaun Pollock with a magnificent slower delivery. While the Sri Lankan pace ace has been most celebrated for his yorkers, his slower balls have been as efficacious. Next in was Andrew Hall and he could only chip a yorker for an easy catch in the covers. Malinga had two in two.
Yet, the game seemed a mere formality with South Africa one hit away and Jacques Kallis in the middle. Chaminda Vaas backed Malinga’s heroics with a solid over, conceding just one.
Enter over 47. Three runs needed. Three wickets in hand. Kallis on strike.
The South African all-rounder who bats with an aura of calmness was feeling the pressure, a result of Malinga’s previous over. Uncharacteristically, he went for an expansive cover drive only to be caught behind. Hat-trick. Game on. Within three deliveries, Malinga had turned the match on its head: from a cakewalk for South Africa, it was suddenly 50-50.
Malinga wasn’t done. He bowled Makhaya Ntini with a trademark yorker, and suddenly, Sri Lanka were just one wicket away from one of the most memorable victories of all time. It wasn’t to be, with South Africa scraping through and avoiding embarrassment. Robin Peterson, who scored the winning runs for the Proteas on the day, recently tweeted: “Had him (Malinga) covered and my off-stump of course.”
In the 12 years that have followed, Malinga has been a dominant force in the ODI game, leading his country to two World Cup finals. Even in the recently held World Cup in England, Malinga showed that despite being in the twilight of his career that he was still Sri Lanka’s premier match-winner.
Sri Lankan cricket has been on the wane in recent years. The post Kumar Sangakkara-Mahela Jayawardene era has seen them drop down to number eight in the ODI rankings. And with Malinga retiring after the first ODI against Bangladesh on Friday, that might drop even further.
At the 2019 World Cup, the right-arm pacer accounted for 38% of the wickets taken by Sri Lankan bowlers. An even more worrying fact for the island nation is that no other bowler even picked half the number of wickets as Malinga’s 13. Post Friday, these are huge boots for anyone to fill, but it doesn’t look like Sri Lanka have the resources to cope with the 35-year-old’s retirement in the immediate future.
Malinga’s exit won’t just be a loss for Sri Lankan cricket, but for world cricket. With heavy bats and batting-friendly rules in place, he has shown that it’s possible for bowlers to thrive in ODIs. During a time when 300+ totals have become the norm, he has rekindled hope for bowlers, especially at the back end of an innings.
The death overs is the time when players crumble under pressure. But since his debut, there has been no international bowler who has been more influential than Malinga during this period of the match. In fact, since 2006, he has the most wickets (120) between overs 41-50 in ODIs with no one else taking more than 75.
Malinga, with his slinging action, also showed that you need not follow the norm to excel. In the upcoming generation, it won’t be a surprise if there are scores of bowlers who bowl with a round arm action. It could be the approach teams look for when they look at bowling options at the death.
There have been thousands of ODI cricketers. But only a few who’ve had a lasting impact on the format. Malinga firmly belongs in the latter category. Sometimes, being unconventional pays. And with Malinga, it did in a huge way. At 173 cm, Malinga isn’t one of the taller fast bowlers the game has seen, but he will retire as a giant of the ODI game.