Nearly 17 years after making his bow in international cricket as an unremarkable bowler with a weird bowling action — then without his trademark blond curls — Lasith Malinga bids adieu to all cricket having palpably influenced the game. Dedicating himself to carve out a niche in T20s, he became a prolific wicket-taker, a match-winner and a trendsetter in the shortest format of the game, a gladiator of the IPL era.
Malinga leaves as the highest wicket-taker (107 wickets) in T20 Internationals, and the fourth-highest wicket-taker (390 wickets) in all T20s, but his stats do not tell the whole story. He brought the yorker back in vogue since the heydays of the 1990s, and developed a unique set of skills that made him a spectacle to watch, especially in the IPL. Amidst the regular fusillade of boundaries and sixes in the IPL, he revelled bowling in the death overs.
Malinga’s magic was a big factor in Mumbai Indians’ success in the IPL.
Malinga’s bowling action was a result of playing with a tennis ball in the beaches of Galle. The uniqueness of his bowling action coupled with his pace made him an ‘X-factor’ right from his earliest days playing cricket for Sri Lanka, especially as he seemed remarkably accurate and deadly with his yorkers. He seemed to be more a javelin thrower than a bowler: the ball would be released from his outstretched right hand at the shoulder level, causing difficulties to the flummoxed batsman.
What separated Malinga from others was also his tendency to get batsmen bowled. Forty percent of all his wickets in T20 Internationals were bowled; his tally of 43 bowled-dismissals out of 107 is the highest. He reduced his pace later in his career but remained as effective. He was a master of variations — the slower yorker and the slower bouncer the chief among them — and a death-overs specialist, taking 90 wickets at an economy rate of less than eight between overs 17 and 20 in the IPL.
Malinga took a bucketful of wickets consistently for Sri Lanka and for his clubs in white-ball cricket. He is the fourth-most prolific T20 bowler in the world (only Dwayne Bravo, Imran Tahir and Sunil Narine have more wickets than him), and ranks 33rd in the list of wicket-takers in List A cricket (446 wickets, 15 four-wicket hauls, 10 five wicket-hauls).
In the IPL, he has the most wickets by any bowler (170 wickets, six four-wicket hauls, one five wicket-haul). As he said on his YouTube channel, he was encouraged by his doctor to choose the shorter formats of the game for the sake of his sustainability, and an IPL stint with Mumbai Indians provided him the perfect canvas to draw his art unhindered. He made the tournament his own. He is the third-highest wicket-taker in all formats for Sri Lanka, behind Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas.
Malinga gave up Test cricket in 2010 at the young age of 27 to prolong his limited-overs career. He did it for the sake of his sustainability, pointing out that his knees may not be able to handle the heavy workload associated with Tests for very long. The move paid off for him as he continued playing for another 10 years. He finished having played the most T20 Internationals for Sri Lanka (84), and he ranks 11th among Sri Lankans who have played the most ODIs.
He had his peaks and troughs, most visibly during 2017, when he suffered a sharp blip in form. But by 2019 he looked as sharp as ever, especially when he demolished New Zealand in a T20I contest in Pallekele with his spell of 5 for 6, a spell that included four wickets off consecutive deliveries. In the World Cup earlier that year, he took 13 wickets, starring in a memorable win against England in an otherwise forgettable campaign for his team in the U.K.
It is well known that Jasprit Bumrah’s bowling has been aided by the guidance of Lasith Malinga at Mumbai Indians, but it wasn’t his skills that developed under Malinga, but the brain to maximise the output of those skills. Malinga had to be thinking on his feet to adapt to the demands of T20 cricket; his insight allowed him to continue on for many years, despite a drop in his pace, and handed India a special weapon in its fast bowling arsenal.
Malinga suffered knee injuries in 2008 and 2016 — both kept him out of cricket for a considerable time — but came back strongly. He was being written off in 2017 when he didn’t maintain his high standards, but he showed that he had much more left in store, despite his ageing body.
It meant that by the time he had hung up his boots, he had played four World Cups and nine IPLs: a colossus in limited-overs cricket.