Lasith Malinga banks on ‘finisher’ Angelo Mathews

April 6, 2014, Dhaka: Lasith Malinga and Nuwan Kulsekara combine to straitjacket India’s batting line-up. Kumar Sangakkara says he has never seen anything like it. Sri Lanka seal the World T20 title under Malinga.

Nearly six years later, Kulasekara is no longer active in international cricket, but Malinga, now 36, is still around. He quit Test cricket nearly a decade ago and gave up ODIs last year, and at one point said he was even “happy to retire from T20 cricket if required”, but he’s ready to rouse himself for another crack at T20 World Cup glory. The 2014 T20 champions now need to contest with seven other teams in the qualifier if they’re to make the main draw. And that’s what Malinga is after.

Sri Lanka’s first assignment in a T20 World Cup new year is a three-match T20I series against India – a side described as the “best team at the moment” by Malinga, one of the shrewdest tacticians Sri Lanka has ever produced.

Malinga had opted out of the T20I series in Pakistan, where a second-string Sri Lanka side toppled the No.1-ranked T20I side 3-0. Then, in Australia, the scene of the 2020 World Cup, Malinga was captain of a team that suffered a 3-0 drubbing.

It isn’t quite panic stations for Sri Lanka, according to Malinga, and instead he called for consistency in selection and hoped to bring the best out of the younger players.

“If we keep chopping and changing, the players also don’t get much confidence,” Malinga said ahead of the T20I series opener in Guwahati. “That confidence is very important and with the selectors and support staff behind them, they can perform well. This is the time we have to back them and give them the opportunity and groom them for the World Cup.”

Among the youngsters is legspin-bowling allrounder Wanindu Hasaranga, who ran rings around Pakistan in Lahore, and pressed on to bag a gig in the T10 league in the UAE. Hasaranga, though, wasn’t as impressive in Australia and will look to make his case for T20 World Cup selection in this series.

Akila Dananjaya, who can also turn the ball either way, has been Sri Lanka’s most penetrative spinner in the recent past, but is currently serving a one-year suspension for an illegal bowling action. In Dananjaya’s absence, Sri Lanka are looking to Hasaranga to pose a wicket-taking threat in the middle overs.

“I still believe bowlers can win T20 matches more than the batsmen,” Malinga said. “Yes, Akila isn’t there, and we can’t depend on Akila now. Murali [Muttiah Muralitharan] was not there, we have to win the match. Whoever is in the bowling department, they have do the job with accuracy and do what the team expects them to do.”

Sri Lanka will also miss the injured Nuwan Pradeep, who played a starring role in the 3-0 sweep of Pakistan. Kasun Rajitha has been called up as a last-minute replacement. His recent form is anything but encouraging – he bagged the unwanted record of conceding the most runs in a T20I innings, in Adelaide in October, but Malinga stressed that fringe players need to be given more games, and space, to grow in international cricket.

“I want to give all the opportunities [to these players] in the next couple of months,” he said. “They’re talented and they have the skill, but not much experience. That’s why myself and the support staff also are very keen to give opportunities to the young players… This series is a very important one for us and it sets the tone for the next couple of months.”

Malinga conceded that India’s vast experience in the IPL gave them an edge over his side, but Sri Lanka themselves have some experience back in the form of Angelo Mathews, who last featured in the shortest format when he was captain in August 2018. Mathews’ international career has been hindered by injuries in the recent past and former coach Chandika Hathurusingha had also been critical of his running between the wickets during the 50-over Asia Cup in 2018.

On the eve of the series opener in India, though, Malinga welcomed Mathews back into the T20 fold and even tagged him as Sri Lanka’s “finisher”.

“He didn’t play T20 cricket for the last one or one-and-a-half years because of injury, then after that he has been selected in the squad and he’s in our system,” Malinga said. “We know he’s an experienced player and he’s our finisher. When he gets an opportunity, he will deliver for us.”

Allrounder Dasun Shanaka is set to be other finisher and he’s coming off the Bangladesh Premier League, where he shellacked a 31-ball 75 against an attack comprising Junaid Khan, Mustafizur Rahman, Mohammad Nabi and Taskin Ahmed.

Danushka Gunathilaka and Avishka Fernando can provide the spark at the top, while Isuru Udana has become a sought-after allrounder in T20 leagues around the world. Everything has to come together for Sri Lanka if they are to ambush India in India. They did it before in Pune in 2016, and have more recently scripted some remarkable comebacks in 2019, so don’t write them off just yet.