In the press conference a day before their match against England, Sri Lankan captain Dimuth Karunaratne didn’t dwell much upon the plans he had in mind for the hosts at Headingley. But he was clear of one thing: his team had to do something out of the ordinary to have a chance.
“If we don’t have good pace, we have to think out of the box. I think that is what we need,” the 31-year-old had said. “We have played in a home series against them, so we have a couple of ideas and we need to work on those things in the middle.”
After pulling off what will go down as one of the most famous World Cup wins in his country’s cricketing history, Karunaratne can proudly say that he lived up to his word. And the man who was the key architect in helping him do so was someone who has made a habit of proving his doubters wrong over the past couple of months – Lasith Malinga.
It would’ve taken a brave man to bet on Sri Lanka against England on Friday. Eoin Morgan and his men were coming in on the back of a thumping win over Afghanistan while the islanders had suffered comprehensive defeats earlier in the tournament against New Zealand and Australia, two of the other sure-shot semi-final contenders.
The 1996 champions had just the start they wanted when they won the toss and got to bat first on what looked like a belter of a pitch. But not a lot went right for them after that in the first half of the match. By the third over itself, both their openers, including skipper Karunaratne, were back in the hut and it looked like England were going to have a light day at work. Whatever plans Sri Lanka had before the match seemed to be out of the window within the first ten minutes of play.
However, they were kept in the game thanks to two contrasting knocks. Avishka Fernando, with his quick-fire 49 off 39, played one of the most attractive cameos of this World Cup as he punched and pulled Jofra Archer and Co to all parts of the ground. His knock was crucial in taking the momentum away from England. The right-hander’s effort was followed by that of Angelo Mathews’.
The seasoned middle-order batsman walked in to bat with scores of zero, zero and nine behind him. Despite remaining not-out on 85 off 115 at the end of 50 overs, it was impossible to say that the former captain was back to any kind of form. However, little did anyone know at that time that Mathews’ patchy stay at the crease would go on to be a match-winning one.
Sri Lanka were left with the unenviable task of defending 232 runs against a team that has played the biggest role in making 300 look like a sub-par total in One-Day Internationals these days. If they were to have the slimmest of chance in the contest, they needed to strike early. And luckily for them, they had just the right man in their ranks to do so.
‘Out of the box’
Malinga trapped the dangerous Jonny Bairstow leg before off the second ball of the innings. All of a sudden, the result didn’t quite seem a foregone conclusion. The right-arm pacer’s next wicket, six overs later, gave the first real glimpse of the ‘out of the box’ approach that Karunaratne had spoken about before the match.
James Vince hit Malinga for consecutive boundaries in his fourth over. The first one was a thumping drive down the ground and the next one was a stylish flick past mid-wicket. But instead of going on the defensive, Karunaratne decided to add a short mid-off right in front of the batsman’s eyeline. And the result was immediate. The right-hander ended up closing the face of his bat to a delivery that was similar to the one he’d hit straight back for four earlier in the over, the edge flew to second slip and Sri Lanka had their man.
Malinga and Karunaratne’s next set-up was even more crucial. The veteran fast-bowler returned for his second spell at the start of the 31st over. His dismissal of the set Joe Root, caught down the leg by ’keeper Kusal Perera, had a generous dose of luck in it, but that was far from the case in the trap set up for Jos Buttler two overs later.
Malinga started his seventh over with a silly mid-on in place for Buttler, and the hard-hitting right-hander nearly chipped it to that fielder after misreading a slower-ball. The next one was a short ball that was pulled away with ease for a boundary. Then came the clincher. Malinga fired in a yorker on the leg-stump to get the LBW. Buttler, a player who likes to hit straight at the start of his innings, had played all over the delivery after being forced to go with a cross-bat in search of gaps. England had been reduced to 144/5, Sri Lanka were on their way to a thrilling win, and Malinga had become the fastest to 50 World Cup wickets.
The 35-year-old flew home earlier in the week following the death of his mother-in-law. Despite being allowed two extra days to stay back in Sri Lanka, he returned early to join his team and prepare for the all-important game against England. “I think he’s [Malinga] a legend,” said Karunaratne after his team’s 20-run victory.
“He know what he has to do. Whatever he does, he is doing his best, so that is why I said, if he wants to go home and come back, that’s fine. So I think he did that and he came back again and he gave a good example for the rest of the guys. He just keeps doing what he knows, that is the main thing, the basic thing.”
It was only last month that Malinga showed what he’s capable of under intense pressure when he conceded just seven runs in the final over to hand Mumbai Indians their fourth Indian Premier League title. Sri Lanka may still be far from making it to the semi-finals but as long as they have a fit Malinga, they’ll continue to have a say in the tournament.