A veteran’s last hurrah: in praise of Sri Lankan slinger Lasith Malinga

Listening to the Cricket World Cup, I sat upright with a start. Malinga? Christ, is he still around? Could it really be him? Does he have a younger cousin or something? A son?

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There are quite a few cricket fans – I’m one of them – who don’t take too much notice of the game’s shorter formats. The clothes, the rock music, the predictability of so many of the games… But right now, it’s the 50-over World Cup in England, and nothing else is on…

Plus, to deny oneself the opportunity to watch, or, in my case, listen, to some of the world’s finest players in action would be virtually an act of self-harm. And so during the match between Sri Lanka and England on 21 June, which England unexpectedly lost, I found myself sitting upright with a start as the commentator announced that Lasith Malinga was coming in to bowl. Malinga? Christ, is he still around? Could it really be him? Does he have a younger cousin or something? A son?

Fast bowling takes it out of you, repeatedly stretching muscles in a way that was not nature’s first intention. Fast bowling at international level takes it out of you even more, and fast bowling at Test level can leave you something like a wreck. If you want to play over the age of 30, at the highest level, it is best to sacrifice speed for accuracy. We have something of a miracle in the ongoing Test career of James Anderson, who is going to be 37 this July; and, at the other end of the scale, the tragedy of Simon Jones, one of England’s most promising fast bowling talents, whose catalogue of injuries had him play the last of his 18 Tests at 26. Lasith Malinga is 35. Even though he retired from Tests in 2011 to preserve himself for the shorter forms of the game, this is still pretty old for a quick.

This, though, isn’t the most interesting thing about Malinga, although it’s pretty interesting. He started off playing beach cricket, with a tennis ball, on the south coast of Sri Lanka. That in itself isn’t strange at all; what was unusual was the action he used to deliver the ball. Every single coach and coaching manual will tell you that the way to deliver a cricket ball accurately is to keep the bowling arm vertical. This makes a lot of geometric sense, not just in terms of accuracy – otherwise, who knows where the ball could end up? – but also in terms of maximising the height from which the ball is delivered. More height equals more bounce, which equals more potential anxiety for the batsman. Yet Malinga delivers the ball with an arm only a few degrees above horizontal, whipping it in from the side; hence his nickname, “Malinga the slinger”.

There are quite a few bowlers who have had idiosyncratic actions – Max Walker bowling off the wrong foot for Australia; Paul Adams’s “frog in a blender” for the South Africans – but as far as I know, no one has approximated Malinga’s wild, sideways delivery, save perhaps India’s part-time spinner Kedar Jadhav.

I’m pretty sure that everyone who watched Malinga for the first time couldn’t believe the evidence of their own eyes. Was such a delivery even legal? (It is, just. The Laws are a little fuzzy about the position of the arm relative to the shoulder at delivery, in a Second Amendment kind of way.)

This would be little more than a curiosity, though, if it weren’t for Malinga’s astonishing accuracy. He’s taken more hat-tricks in the one-day format than any other bowler; he’s the only one who has taken four wickets in four balls. (Sadly, not to say surprisingly, this feat didn’t win Sri Lanka the match, against South Africa in the 2007 World Cup.) A reporter in the Guardian noted Malinga, warming up before the recent World Cup game against England, casually hitting a solitary rubber practice stump four times in a row.

And oh, how he makes the ball talk. Treat yourself to YouTube’s various compilations of his finest moments. Even the most dibbly-dobbly bowler can make a batsman look silly. But no one, I think, can make a batsman look as wretchedly confused as Malinga can.

Jeff Thomson was another slinger, and one whose action was much copied by schoolboys when he was in his prime for Australia in the 1970s, much to the delight of glaziers, dentists and cricket ball manufacturers (the balls would go everywhere, and not all were recovered). His pace could terrify batsmen, but that’s another matter. With Malinga, the ball swerves, dips, slides, becomes articulate, and the batsman is left either nursing a bruised toe or looking haplessly back at his stumps, smeared across the pitch.

And he’s still doing it. He took four wickets in the game against England, and won the match for his team. He has a little pot belly, and is teased about this. He has the same bouncing mop of dyed hair. He’s not so fast these days – around 85mph is his maximum speed – but then he doesn’t need to be. He could get you out, you feel, if he was bowling with a ball made of gaffer tape and rubber bands. Long may Malinga continue.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 28 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order