The monster they call Mali

England v Sri Lanka, World Cup 2019, Headingley June 21, 2019

What new tricks could Sri Lanka come up with to stifle England, the biggest, battingest beast at this World Cup? Turns out the old ones are the best ones. It feels as if Lasith Malinga has been raging against the dying of the light for several years now - a couple of weeks ago he was raging against his team-mates for not upping their games - and it was his spirit that animated Sri Lanka as they fought the odds to produce the upset of the tournament.

Before this game, Dimuth Karunaratne had talked of the tactics Sri Lanka were cooking up and their hopes of keeping England to less than 300. They made sure of the second part of that objective by stuttering to 232 for 9 from their overs, kept afloat by Angelo Mathews' 85 - a fighting return to form the value of which grew with the fall of every England wicket.

But how would they combat an opposition line-up fresh off blitzing nearly 400 runs against Afghanistan three days ago? "If we don't have pace, we have to think out of the box," Karunaratne mused. Even less pace seemed to be the way to go - something Malinga has always been adept at - on a Headingley surface that was not exactly treacherous but demanded a certain amount of care and attention.

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There was a throwback feel to this game, not least because Malinga was pulling the strings. There was a dashing Sri Lankan cameo at the top of the order, courtesy of Avishka Fernando's fearless assault; the "boring middle overs" made a reappearance during Mathews' bump'n'grind stand with Kusal Mendis; and then when it came to the chase, England were slowly suffocated by a team they have only beaten once in World Cups since 1992.

With this haul, Malinga became the fourth man to take 50 World Cup wickets (none of the three above him took as few as 25 innings). After defeat to Australia last Saturday, he had flown back home for the second time in as many weeks to attend ceremonies for the death of his mother-in-law - but there was no questioning his commitment to play again here. He roused himself to practice in the middle on the eve of the match, loping in to roll those ursine shoulders over a few more times, skimming the ball through low on the practice pitches.

Sri Lanka had been willing to let Malinga stay with his family for longer, happy to defer to his wishes. But the fire for competition still burns, as shown by his dash home during the IPL to appear in the domestic competition some 12 hours after turning out for Mumbai Indians, as part of proving his commitment ahead of the World Cup.

Karunaratne was doubtless glad he chose to return in time to keep the team's semi-final hopes alive. "He's a legend, he knows what he has to do," the Sri Lankan captain said afterwards. "He knows best. If he wants to go home and come back, that's fine. He gave a good example for the guys. He keeps doing what he knows, the basic things. He sets an example for the youngsters."

Malinga provided the initial spark with only his second ball, a trademark dipping yorker on leg stump that had Jonny Bairstow lbw. Proof that some of the old pace was still there came when James Vince was sucked into a drive and edged to slip. Then Malinga went off to prowl the outfield and England began to tick along once again, driven by the metronomic Joe Root.

Pretty much since emerging as the sui generis slinger, self-taught on the beaches of Rathgama, Malinga has been raging against the machine, fighting to do things his way - sometimes at the expense of good relations with management or even Sri Lanka's fans. After firing a rocket up his team-mates before their second match, against Afghanistan, he helped finish off their blood-and-guts defence in Cardiff. Now for another act of defiance.

When Malinga returned for the 31st over, England were 126 for 3 and the requirement was heading steadily down towards double-figures. With his third ball, he had Root taken down the leg side - a wicket only confirmed after Karunaratne had reviewed with three seconds left on the DRS counter. A flicker on Ultra Edge, a strangle to the keeper, and Sri Lanka had their opening. Luck? Well, some folk make their own.

Jos Buttler presented an opponent of similarly elemental force, a futureshock batsman capable of taking a small chase away from Sri Lanka. Some of that out-of-the-box thinking was on show when a short, straight mid-on nearly snapped a chance back down the pitch. But having been rattled for four, Malinga went back to his money ball - another whirring yorker that would have crashed into leg stump had Buttler's boot not intervened. Surging up like a leviathan from the deep, like Godzilla answering Tokyo's call, the monster they call "Mali" had seen off another challenger.

England were now five down, Malinga with four of them. "Ma-lin-ga! Ma-ling-ga!" came the chant from the Kirkstall Lane end. This is a famous old ground that has seen the odds upended before - think Botham and Dilley in 1981 or even Sri Lanka here in 2014 - and the anxiety levels began to rise for the home support.

A spell of 2 for 12 from three overs had sown the seed. Now his team-mates stood up to deliver as well. Dhananjaya de Silva, recently elevated to the team's frontline spinner, struck three times - against supposedly the best players of limited-overs spin bowling in the world - and England were teetering. Malinga came back again for one last surge, the old-stager revelling on the big stage, and almost sealed the match with his five-for, only for Mendis to spill a desperately hard chance on the deep midwicket boundary.

Malinga sank to his haunches, his 35-year-old frame nearly spent, those famous locks defiantly skew-whiff. He had bowled throughout still wearing his jumper. The light was fading. But this is a World Cup and Sri Lanka's prize fighter had done his bit. Rage on, Mali.

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