Bowling on borrowed time: How Hamid Hassan and Lasith Malinga are taking it to the death

Lasith Malinga in acton against New Zealand
June 03, 2019

Hamid Hassan has Afghanistan flags on his face, a headband in national colours and is bowling very fast. It's the 2015 World Cup, and at this point, it is Hassan who is the face of Afghanistan cricket, not Rashid Khan.

Genuine 90mph bowlers are rare enough as it is. And Hassan in his prime wasn't some raw bowler who flung it down; his action was tight, he did things with the ball. He looked the complete package.

Hassan is now 32 years old officially; he's played 34 ODIs. His first was in 2009, against Scotland in Benoni. Before this World Cup and the preparation for it, Hassan had not bowled in an ODI for Afghanistan since July 14, 2016. That day he reduced Ireland to 12 for 2, en route to figures of 2 for 21 from six overs.

His bowling average is 21, his economy rate is 4.5, and even if it's lowered by the fact that he's mostly played against the developing ODI teams, those aren't numbers you toss away.

And when he has played the major teams, he has rarely been torn apart. In the last World Cup he claimed 3 for 45 against Sri Lanka. For those of you with short attention spans or born in recent times, there was also his first game of this World Cup where he bowled six overs for 15 runs, including two maidens against David Warner. Hassan can play.

But his body has never stayed together for any length of time. He has had reconstructive knee surgery, quad problems, back issues, a sports hernia and side concerns. Not to mention that, when he runs, you can hear his hamstrings rattle. It is a big gamble playing him in any given game, and considering how little cricket he has played of late, it's a substantial gamble to play him in a tournament this long.

The reason that Afghanistan have made this call is that they have found no other quick bowlers. Their only two regular seamers since the last World Cup are the well-postured slinger Dawlat Zadran, and Gulbadin Naib's slow wobblers. Despite playing 61 matches in that time, only four Afghan pacemen have played as many as ten matches, and one of those is the retired Mirwais Ashraf. Sixty-one percent of their deliveries since the last World Cup have been spin, and they average 22 with an economy of 4.2. So it makes sense.

But this is England, and this is rapidly turning into the short ball World Cup. You need seam and bounce to compete, and so they've dusted Hassan off, as he's currently pre-injured. Although even today he was hurt in the nets when his new-ball partner Dawlat smashed a shot back that struck Hassan on the hand. He could get wounded living in a cotton bud in a fairy floss village.

The Sri Lankan team is in a very similar position to the Afghans. They have a batting line-up that doesn't make enough runs; they hope or rely on magic from their spinners, and their seam bowling is not extraordinary.

So their greatest white-ball seamer (sorry, Chaminda) has been brought back into the team over the last couple of years, with this World Cup in mind. For almost two years Lasith Malinga played no ODIs, and few thought that he could ever be a significant part of the Sri Lankan ODI team again. But now he has come back, there have been moments such as his destruction of the England lower order in Dambulla. There was also the heroic last over for Mumbai in the IPL final. And he has just gone in the first round for the CPL draft.

But there are plenty of signs he is no longer the Malinga of old; he's just old Malinga.

This year in the IPL, his economy rate was 9.76. In his prime years, his full tosses didn't go for over eight an over. New Zealand took him for 93 runs at Nelson, that used to take two games. His bowling average in ODIs this year is 42, and his econ 6.3.

Even if he had been arriving at the World Cup in peak form, his body is not the brilliant tool it once was. He's only bowled 222 overs since the start of 2016, and if he plays every game in this tournament he'll end up bowling almost half that many again. But according to the man himself, there is no problem with his knees, and he is ready to do his duty once again.

" I feel at the moment I didn't get concerned about my body," he said. "I [am] always concern[ed] how I'm going to do best for the team. I'll manage my spells, maybe two spells, maybe three spells. Maybe I don't know what the captain is expecting. In the situation you throw the ball to me and I try to do my best."

ALSO READ: If you had told me I'd be Afghan captain, I wouldn't have believed it

That is essentially what Sri Lanka's always done, and they also threw the captaincy at him. But there was a concern that, while he has an excellent tactical brain, his man-management style has been seen as sub-optimal. So while his leadership and experience are obviously important, this is the oldest side in the tournament, with characters who should be able to manage themselves. What they really need is seam bowling.

Sri Lanka has tried many seamers since the last World Cup. Few have been horrible, but none have been outstanding either. Not one of them averages under 30 with an econ better than six. And when you look at how they've gone in England, Australia and New Zealand, it's worse. Malinga is not here just because he was once great; he's here because he's been as good as anyone else, and he was once great.

And when he speaks on fast bowling with the white ball, you can see his cricket intelligence.

"There's always a difference of bowling inside the first ten overs, in the middle overs (11-40) and in the death (41-50) on using your skill," he said. "As a bowler, it's important that they have wickets under their name at the end of a game. Some might reckon that they should take wickets off all 60 deliveries, but that's not the case. I just hope all our bowlers use those wicket-taking options effectively. Each bowler has their own method of setting up a batsman and taking wickets."

If Mumbai are still willing to throw him the ball at the death, if teams are still willing to shell out enormous sums for him in other T20 leagues, and if he can still rip out England's long batting order, you're still better off with him than someone else who is decidedly more human.

In 2007 it was Malinga who bowled two slower balls, a length ball and a yorker from hell to take four wickets in four balls against South Africa in Guyana. It was there you saw Malinga's dyed hair bobbing, right arm low and the ball dipping like it had been bowled on a planet with a different gravitational pull.

Neither of these players can live on these memories, but like many teams in this tournament, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan have trusted experienced cricketers over young blood.

If their bodies allow it, this gives Malinga and Hassan a chance to create one last set of great memories for their nations.

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