During the first qualifier of the 2019 edition of Indian Premier League between Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings, something very strange happened. The captain of the Mumbai team, Rohit Sharma, chose to not use Lasith Malinga for his full quota of overs.
The curly-haired Sri Lankan ended with figures of 0/26 in 3 overs. This was fascinating because till some years ago, if any side was given an option of choosing a bowler to bowl in the slog overs, their number one choice would have been, invariably, Malinga. From there, we have come to the situation where his captain keeps him hidden from the batsmen at the end of the innings.
Partly, this could be attributed to the unparalleled abilities of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. He was present at the crease at the time. His India teammate Rohit, in the opposition camp on this occasion, knew full well that Mahi loves batting against the veteran Sri Lankan. In fact, Dhoni has this unique ability to go back deep in the crease against yorkers and dig them out for big hits – the helicopter shot is a great example.
Larger issues with Malinga's bowling
But the former India captain isn't the only one who loves batting against Malinga. Virat Kohli's domination of the Mumbai Indians' pacer is also legendary. In fact, his record against India over the years has been quite ordinary. But if one looks at the last international ODI series that Sri Lanka played – in South Africa – where the bowler with slingy action captained them, he looked rather innocuous on that occasion too. There has clearly been a decline in the potency of the man with more than 300 ODI wickets.
So how did the 35-year old go from being one of the greatest death bowlers of all time to become so ineffective? Why is it that unlike the old days when scoring run-a-ball against him used to be difficult, batsmen are playing him with disdain? The answer lies in the bowling style of Malinga itself.
It was always believed that his success was entirely due to the incredible ability of bowling yorkers at will. To some extent, this was true. He did bowl a lot of yorkers and the batsmen, especially those in the lower order seemed clueless. But it wasn't just the yorkers which worked in his favour. An equally important part of his success was the novelty of his action.
If one were to analyse Malinga's bowling closely over the years, he would realise that his yorkers were not always accurate. Very often, they were low full-tosses or half-volleys. But the batsmen still got defeated by them because his strange action made it difficult to play them properly. One particular wicket that he got presents the best example of this phenomenon.
In the 2013 Champions Trophy, Malinga bowled a knee-high full toss to Kane Williamson which swung a little. But the New Zealander was so confused by the delivery that he missed it completely and was caught plumb leg-before-wicket. The clear reason for his embarrassing dismissal was the inability to get used to Malinga's weird action. Williamson couldn't track the ball as he would have against any other bowler.
So, the novelty of Malinga's action is as crucial to his success as his yorkers. But the Indians were playing him on a regular basis in the IPL as well as the international arena (at the beginning of this decade, the frequency of India-Sri Lanka matches was excessive). So, for them, his action had lost its novelty. As a result, whenever he missed his yorkers, and that happened quite frequently, the resultant half-volley or full-toss was put away by them easily. Then, the bowler was left with no options.
Wrong perception of Malinga's bowling
The idea that Malinga was deadly accurate with his yorkers and could bowl them with ease was always only partly true. Yes, he did bowl a lot of yorkers but many of them missed their mark. But for batsmen who didn't face him or anyone like him often, still struggled to pick them. Indian's didn't have a problem.
But at this late stage of his career, when he has been in the international circuit for nearly 15 years, the novelty of the action is gone. Batsmen don't get their brains scrambled anymore. That is why his effectiveness in international cricket has waned considerably. This is also why he had to be kept away from bowling the death overs against Dhoni and CSK.
The World Cup in England would be his last. He lit up the 2007 edition and played a key role in the 2011 event as well. But by 2015, people were starting to get used to him and in this coming event, it will take much more than attempted yorkers for him to get success. Till now, we haven't seen any sign of that.