Island Cricket

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Big interview - Lasith Malinga | Beach Boy

Cricket: Beach Boy Sport The Observer: He grew up bowling on the sand with a shaved tennis ball, didn't play a proper game until he was 17 and has had to contend with one of sport's most rigid class structures. But now 'the Slinga' is one of cricket's most recognisable figures and one of Sri Lanka's key weapons against England.

Muttiah Muralitharan is, to the outsider, the paramount star of Sri Lankan cricket, a world-beating bowler who is about to recapture the record for the most wickets in Test history. But the spinner is a one-off. It is another bowler with a unique action, Lasith Malinga, who is the future of cricket in his country. Not because we are going to see a new generation of shock-headed, side-arm slingers from the island, but because his success has dealt a telling blow to the class system that bedevilled the sport there. Seven years after he first picked up a proper cricket ball, four years after his Test debut, Malinga is adored by ordinary Sri Lankans for wrestling the sport away from the island's elite.

There is the wrong side of the tracks, and there is a place where the train does not even go. That is where Malinga is from: Rathgama on Sri Lanka's south-west coast, halfway between surfers' paradise Hikkaduwa and old-world Galle. Not only were the trains far away, so was 'official' cricket. 'There was cricket, we called it soft-ball cricket. Cricket with a tennis ball or a ball we would shave and then pichchilla [burn] to make harder,' he says in his developing English. When he is stuck for a word, he will make sure that the precise Sinhalese one gets translated. It is apparent he likes to get more than just each curl exactly right.

'The only cricket I played was soft-ball on the beach. When it rained we would play in a kind of net we made from coconut leaves for a roof. My house was about 60 yards from the beach so I could play a lot.' He started playing at 11, day in, day out, and quickly made a name for himself up and down the beach. 'I was getting famous, but famous means a hundred people know me. We played six-a-side and we had lots of village tournaments, but it was always the beach.'

On that beach he perfected his discus-thrower sidewinder action. If Paul Adams was a frog in a blender, Malinga is Worzel Gummidge in a Wurlitzer. 'In soft-ball cricket, to cut the runs, the safest ball is the yorker into the sand. I want to bowl six yorkers. This was always my action. I see this side-action is easy to bowl yorkers. I think with this action it is very easy to put the ball in the right place. If I bowl very straight, I could take wickets.'

And then he grins. 'I could bowl quick but not always straight.'

The world of whites and leather balls may have been far away in Colombo, Galle and Kandy, but his small town of 6,000 people did have television. 'I watched Sri Lanka win the World Cup [in 1996] but what they did there and what I was doing didn't seem connected. Waqar Younis was always my favourite, because of his yorkers. Even if he didn't get wickets, the yorkers would give batsmen trouble.' The way Malinga says 'yorker', it almost deserves capitals.

As with many an Asian youngster, school conflicted with sport. 'I used to bowl one over, run home, let my mother know I was around and then go back to the beach to finish the match.' He was good at school, especially at maths, and his mother wanted him to follow her into working in the local bank. His father is a mechanic.

'I played a soft-ball match at school where the umpire was from Mahinda College [a cricket-playing school in Galle, a 30-minute drive from Rathgama] and he said I should play for them.' His mother let him go to this school with a strong academic reputation for his A-levels, not knowing that they had their own cricket field. He took 14 wickets the first time he ever bowled with a real ball. 'The first time I ever picked up a leather ball, it felt so heavy, so strange, like something from out of the world,' he tells me.

He has come a very long way in a very short time. 'I had no idea that I could be playing cricket for Sri Lanka when I was a boy. I had no idea that I could be playing cricket for Sri Lanka when I was a man. But I am now and that makes me feel I am living my dream.'

In school cricket and then first-class cricket (eight wickets in his first match for Galle CC as a 17-year-old in 2001), Malinga made waves. He was sent up to Colombo for national under-19 trials.

Sri Lanka has produced other out-station cricketers, most famously Sanath Jayasuriya. But Matara, Jayasuriya's home town on the tip of the south coast, has 120 times the population of Rathgama. And Jayasuriya, with his initial country-mouse ways, was very much under the wing of Colombo's Arjuna Ranatunga when he first moved to the capital in the early 1990s, ensuring that the newcomer's lightning strikes of brilliance were looked out for.

When Malinga first came to Colombo for that trial he had no one. No patron, no pedigree, no polish. And with that action and that small-town background, even though he took three wickets in three overs, he was sent back down south.

We have been having dinner and all this time he has been tucking in with gusto. Now he has stopped eating completely and speaks only in Sinhalese. His translator senses his unease and she explains: 'Lasith was very disappointed. He did his very best and did so well and still they didn't take him. He thought they would never take him.' It's left unsaid, but Sri Lankan cricket has a tendency to be cliquey and class-conscious. Less so now than in days gone by - when Aravinda de Silva and Ranatunga first came on the scene. The fact that they weren't 'Royal or Thomian' schoolboys was very much held against them - but the bias in favour of establishments such as Royal College and St Thomas' College is there nevertheless. Six years ago, Malinga was too out-station, too other-worldly.

Malinga could not change where he was from, but he could change where he was going. He had blown his chances of A-levels and further education by becoming a first-class cricketer while still at college. The sport was all he had. 'I just decided to play cricket and see what I could do. I still do.'

Former Sri Lanka fast bowlers Champaka Ramanayake and Rumesh Ratnayake kept an eye on him. 'A lot of people claim credit for Lasith,' Ratnayake says, 'but the thing is he did it all by himself. I just said to him that if he was stronger he would be more balanced and not bowl so many wides. He was quick. He just needed to be more reliable.'

He made it back to Colombo a couple of years later. Faster, stronger but still erratic. Yorkers there were, beamers too. 'I broke someone's finger in the nets and after that no one wanted to face me,' Malinga says a little sheepishly.

'Around about the time we were getting ready for the 2003 World Cup I heard there was this young pace-bowler new in Colombo and how no one really wanted to bat against him, certainly none of the seniors. So I had to have a go,' says De Silva. And? 'He's hard to pick up when you first face him. His action means it's hard for a batsman to set a trigger movement. Back then he was more difficult because you just didn't know where the ball was going to go. I'm pretty sure neither did he.'

After retiring from playing, De Silva joined the Sri Lankan Cricket Board with a remit to develop new talent. He says that Malinga impressed him not so much with his bowling in those days as with his inner fire. 'He asked one of our bowling coaches, "Could it be possible that someone with my action ever gets accepted?" He said it in such a way that you could see he had a big determination to make it.' Malinga knew he was unusual, he just wanted to know whether that was going to be held against him for ever.

In 2004, the chance came, against Australia. His first two wickets were a well set Darren Lehmann and then, three balls later, Adam Gilchrist for a duck. Eighty-three more Test victims have followed and he has not only taken big scalps, but he also has the best strike-rate in the team (one almost identical to Brett Lee's). He is very much the man Jayawardene throws the ball to when he needs a breakthrough wicket. He is a reverse-swing king bowling with controlled aggression and he's getting faster all the time.

Malinga Lethal on debut

He has a winning smile, outdoes even Shoaib Akhtar in eye-catching wicket celebrations and has become a cult phenomenon outside Sri Lanka. 'There are people everywhere who wear wigs like me at cricket-grounds, especially in South Africa and the West Indies,' he says. But there does remain a danger that the hair and the flair will overshadow his bowling. He may be the first man to take four in four balls in international cricket (against South Africa in the 2007 World Cup), but Sri Lanka need him to take four or five in a match on a regular basis if they are to be a truly formidable side.

He had a good tour of England last year but Ryan Sidebottom (12 wickets at 13.83 and a Robert Plant barnet) outdid Malinga (six wickets at 32.00 and Lion King) in the five one-dayers in Sri Lanka this October. In between there was a disappointing quarter-season with Kent last summer, so it is not as if he has really established himself as an outright champion with the ball. He is a thinking bowler and is developing his repertoire. A slower ball has come along this year which has been successful and he has gleefully found that his 'knee-high full tosses get wickets' too. But he is still to cement his place in the Test side.

'I'm more effective in one-day cricket [11 wickets at 19.09 in the Champions Trophy last year then 18 wickets at 15.77 in the World Cup, as Sri Lanka finished runners-up] because the batsmen have to play shots against me with a swinging ball. Not so easy.' He also gets his full allocation in ODIs. Given the number of overs Muralitharan bowls in Tests and the number of wickets he takes, there is not much left to go around. Muralitharan prefers to bowl when the other end is kept tight; Chaminda Vaas is the perfect foil. Muralitharan just hopes and prays that Malinga, for all his wicket-taking potential, will not give the batsmen a few swinging down the leg-side. Certainly if you look at Sri Lanka's bowling combinations, it is rare to see Malinga and Muralitharan bowling in tandem.

I try to provoke some sort of reaction in him by saying it must be hard to bowl when Muralitharan is so dominant but he will have none of it: 'Murali's a legend and it's an honour to play with him.'

Malinga worked out for himself, without any coaching, that side-arm bowling was effective and he kept at it when so many said he should not. He chose to keep playing when others would have given up. He backed himself when he was the longest of long-shots. Every Sri Lankan cricketer inspires back-biting and sniping, even Muralitharan, it's just the islanders' way. No one, however, has a bad word to say about Malinga. No one.

What has been just a trickle since Ranatunga first looked for talent outside of Colombo is potentially going to be a gushing stream thanks to Malinga. He is an absolute hero to the masses. He is one of them made good. 'He knows the impact he's created and is going to inspire a lot of youngsters to realise their dreams,' Jayawardene says.

'I don't worry about my figures but I do want to be the third Sri Lankan to take 100 Test wickets,' says Malinga. Such has been the paucity of Sri Lankan bowling outside of Muralitharan and Vaas that the next highest wicket-taker is Jayasuriya with 97 in 109 Tests. Malinga has 85 in 25. New talent needs to come through.

In succeeding, Malinga has broken more than cricketing records, he has broken Sri Lankan social barriers. He has only been a proper cricketer for seven years. The next seven - 'I can't change as a person but I will as a cricketer' - can only mean more wickets, more smiles and more influence.


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