Sri Lanka 'certain' Lasith Malinga will come good at the Asia Cup
At 35, Lasith Malinga may find it challenging to operate at the same level as he used to during the height of his career.
But Sri Lankan cricket team manager Charith Senanayake believes class is permanent as far as the flamboyant fast bowler is concerned.
What has not been permanent for Malinga in recent times is a place in the national side. A combination of long-term injury concerns, especially regarding his knee, and an awkward relationship with Sri Lanka's cricket fraternity has seen the right-armer being left out in the cold.
As fate would have it, though, the man who tormented the world's best batsmen with his toe-crushing yorkers for much of the past one-and-a-half decades has been recalled for the Asia Cup, to be held in the UAE from September 15-28.
Senanayake certainly rates "Slinga Malinga" - known as such for his low-arm action - as one of the elite pacemen in the country, despite the latter's recent circumstances.
“Malinga has been a consistent performer at the T20 level, even in the recent past,” he told The National.
“He is still a very effective bowler - if not the best in Sri Lanka - in powerplay overs and at the death [the last overs of a limited-overs match]."
Malinga, who has taken 301 wickets since making his one-day international debut 14 summers ago, last appeared for Sri Lanka in an ODI in September 2017, against India in Colombo.
But recent form - he was the third-highest wicket-taker in the Global T20 League in Canada - proved compelling enough for the national selectors to throw him a lifeline, even though they had overlooked him for a one-off T20 at home against South Africa.
With the World Cup less than a year away, the Asia Cup could not only prove crucial to Malinga's career but also to Sri Lanka's fortunes in England next year.
Senanayake believes his selection will be a win-win for both player and team. "I am certain that he will come out good, and it will be a significant boost for Sri Lanka’s near-term ODI plans," he said.
Still hopeful about Chandimal
Malinga's return will be welcome news to Sri Lanka, especially given the uncertainty surrounding two key players.
Test captain Dinesh Chanimal has been laid low by a hairline fracture on the middle finger of his right hand, while off-spinner Akila Dananjaya may be unavailable for the first two games as he awaits the birth of his first child.
“Chandimal, hopefully, will be fit and ready to tour,” Senanayake, the former opening batsman said, while conceding Dananjaya's absence will be "a slight setback".
In the latter's place, Sri Lanka have picked Dilruwan Perera, a fellow off-spinner who has taken 125 Test wickets but has yet to establish himself in the limited-overs side. “Dilruwan is an experienced bowler and there is no reason why he will not make a positive contribution,” Senanayake said.
Sri Lanka face Bangladesh in their Group B opener in Dubai on Saturday, with Afghanistan being the other team in the pool. Group A includes India, Pakistan and Hong Kong, who beat the UAE in the cup qualifier final in Kuala Lumpur earlier this week.
The Sri Lankans will arrive in the UAE on the back of a strong home series against South Africa, against whom they won the two-Test series and the one-off T20, although they lost the five-match ODI series 3-2 in between.
Nonetheless, the mood in the camp is excellent.
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Sri Lanka have the 'big mo'
“Absolutely,” Senanayake said when asked if Sri Lanka have momentum on their side. “Three consecutive limited-overs wins [two ODIs followed by one T20 against the Proteas] to finish the series will give this young team a lot of confidence and belief going forward.
"It certainly helps us to have played a lot of limited-overs cricket recently."
Sri Lanka are expected to win both their group games, but Senanayake is taking nothing for granted.
“That [topping the group] certainly will be Sri Lanka’s immediate goal,” he said. “However, there are no guarantees as both of these teams are very capable of beating any opposition on their day.”
Senanayake also believes whoever qualifies for the second round of matches - titled 'Super Four' - will be good enough to win the title.
“Afghanistan are more than capable of an upset or two,” he said.
“Even though the spotlight will be on India and Pakistan, once you cross the boundary line and the umpire calls ‘play’, the pressure is equal on all teams.”
Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC), which runs the sport in the island nation, has seen many setbacks in recent times, ranging from continued interference of politicians, allegations of corruption and mass resignations of selectors. This has led the sports ministry to take over the administration of the board until elections are held on an unspecified date this year.
Senanayake, though, believes players from the subcontinent have learnt to take such off-field matters in their stride and get on with the game.
“Professional athletes are trained to focus on the job at hand and block out [distractions] if there are any,” he said. “The team spirit has been very positive, and the boys are looking forward to continuing to improve and build on their recent success.”
He said this spirit extends to the management, too, especially between himself and coach Chandika Hathurusinghe.
“We go a long way back in time, as I was his opening partner on his Test debut in Hamilton,” said Senanayake, who made his highest Test score of 64 in an opening stand of 95 with Hathurusinghe during their 1991/92 tour of New Zealand.
“Hatu is hard working and a perfectionist in every aspect all his life," he added. "We have a cordial working relationship.
"Though I have worked with many other coaches in the past, working with him is a unique experience.”