A distinctive, slinging bowling action and tint in his shock of hair have made Lasith Malinga a recognizable fixture of Sri Lanka’s squads at four Cricket World Cups.
When his teammates needed something special on Friday to keep in contention, they knew where to look for inspiration. The 35-year-old paceman produced a four-wicket burst that rocked England’s batsmen and helped his team to an upset 20-run win over the pre-tournament favorite.
In the process he became just the fourth bowler to take 50 or more wickets in the World Cup, and revived Sri Lanka’s hopes.
Malinga tried to play down his contribution as his team celebrated and a small group of Sri Lankan fans waved their flags to the tunes of trumpets and drums.
“We stuck to our basic plan, line and length,” he said, keeping a lid on the euphoria. “We want to carry on the momentum and confidence into the other matches.”
Sri Lanka captain Dimuth Karunaratne was more effusive in his assessment.
“Lasith is a legend,” Karunaratne said. “He keeps doing what he knows, that’s the main thing, the basic things. Those things set an example for the youngsters. He did a really good job.”
Most critics had written off Sri Lanka’s chances of making the semifinals after losses to Australia and New Zealand, two washed-out games, and only a win over lowly ranked Afghanistan.
Sri Lanka had won only two of its previous 14 completed one-day internationals, compared with England losing just two of its previous 14.
And after 14 balls against England at Headingly, Sri Lanka was two wickets down for three runs. Angelo Mathews propped up the innings with an unbeaten 85, guiding Sri Lanka to 232-9.
It didn’t seem enough at first, with England supremely confident of making it five wins from six at the World Cup and retaking the lead in the standings from Australia.
Enter Malinga. He has taken time out of Sri Lanka’s camp because of the recent death of his mother-in-law, and had taken only four wickets in the tournament.
But he has done amazing things on the World Cup stage before — consider his four wickets with four consecutive deliveries against South Africa in 2007. And now he’s done more.
Malinga conceded a single on the first delivery of England’s innings and took his first wicket with the second ball, trapping local Yorkshire favorite Jonny Bairstow lbw for a duck. In the seventh over he had James Vince caught at slip, and England was 26-2. And wobbling.
Joe Root led England’s recovery and had passed 50 for the fourth time in the tournament when Malinga returned for his second spell and struck to collect a rare half century of his own. Having Root caught behind for 57 gave Malinga his 50th World Cup wicket, joining a list of retired greats including Glenn McGrath (71), Muttiah Muralitharan (68) and Wasim Akram (55).
A yorker in Yorkshire hit Jos Buttler on the boot, which the England vice-captain unsuccessfully reviewed.
For a split second, Malinga almost had the perfect ending. England had no wickets in hand when Ben Stokes lofted Malinga toward the deep midwicket boundary, where Kusal Mendis got two hands to the ball but dropped it as he tumbled to the ground. A wicket on the penultimate ball of his allotted 10 overs would have given Malinga a five-wicket haul to underline his man-of-the-match performance, but instead had to settle for figures of 4-43.
Stokes responded by stroking sixes on consecutive balls to start the next over, and then two boundaries to move to 82 before he was stranded when No. 11 batsman Mark Wood was caught behind.
Buttler said England had no real answer for Malinga’s old-school spells.
“He is just different. As much as you do face him he is different,” Buttler said. “The stumps are always in play with him. We didn’t counter him as well as we could have, but credit to a fantastic bowler.”