Beyond club, country

It was mid-2008 and the visiting Indian cricketers were losing their sleep over the newest mystery bowler rolled out of Sri Lanka's freak factory. Ajantha Mendis's carom ball was a rage. In such times, asking the locals about the whereabouts of another "odd ball" Lasith Malinga had seemed weird. He hadn't played an international game for more than four months and reports said the x-rays of his injured knee suggested that he wouldn't be playing one for at least a year. The future looked bleak and Malinga was convinced fate was conspiring against him — why else did his injury coincide with IPL Season 1 and he missed getting the $350,000 that the Mumbai Indians paid for him at the auction?

Finally, I met him at Sri Lanka Cricket's physiotherapy centre late one evening and Malinga, though reluctantly, spoke about the trauma of rehabilitation and recovery. He was a disillusioned man without a central contract, who avoided cricket discussions. He had very few friends and a heavy heart.

The conversation brought to fore the unpredictable world of the men who take the call of bowling at 150 km per hour and also the monotonous schedule of slow recovery that can make the adrenaline-charged men lose mental balance. Speaking about his tedious daily routine, which he was to suffer for more than a year, the one-time globe trotter said: "The only time I leave home is to meet my physiotherapist. For the rest of the day I just watch television. To kill time I sweep and mop my house."

Against this background, it was easy to understand Malinga's instant "I quit Tests" reaction a day after Sri Lankan selector Duleep Mendis, while questioning the pacer's fitness, had ordered him back home to undergo rehabilitation.

Going from the deafening "Ma-lin-ga, Ma-lin-ga" roar from the packed Wankhede Stadium to the solitary confinement of the dusted four walls and squeaky clean floor of his Colombo home wouldn't have been tough but outright cruel.

Malinga definitely had his reasons to give up the flannels for good. He was fit enough to bowl four hours, that too slit in two-three spells, with a sufficient break between games, but he wasn't sure if his knee could take the workload of the tough five-day routine of a Test match in England.

But despite their long experience of playing the game, the Lankan administrators failed to get this cricketing logic. They took it personally. It was a rejection, they believed.

On the other hand, the moment the word "retire" escaped Malinga's lips, and that too while proudly wearing the Mumbai Indians blues, the compulsive debaters rolled up their sleeves. They hastily slotted it as a "club vs country" dilemma. The slant was convenient. The discussion became passionate and the politicians too got a chance to throw in their two cents. Sports experts too were not complaining as "club vs country" was a global issue; besides there were always the usual European football analogies to put their point across more convincingly.

But if one keeps out nationalism from this debate or avoids putting all sporting problems under one umbrella, it becomes clear that this is a Test vs T20 problem. Malinga has merely chosen a format that suits his frail physical condition. After miraculously recovering from a complete breakdown in 2008, he returned for the Test series against India in 2010. He was over-bowled in the first Test and that saw him suffer another minor injury. After sitting out the second Test, he came on to bowl in the third and had a spell of 30 overs in the second innings. Exhausted, he decided that he no longer wanted to risk injury and suffer the solitary confinement of his house.

Since then, he has been a regular in Sri Lanka's shorter version teams and with Mumbai Indians in the IPL. He played a big role in Sri Lanka reaching the World Cup final and has been instrumental in Mumbai Indians' present mid-league leader status.

For all its ills, the IPL, as it has been a financially rewarding retirement solution for the game's legends, is also proving to be a happy haven for pacers who can no longer bend their backs for long spells under the hot sun. Giving Malinga company in the IPL are other 150 km per hour club members Shaun Tait and Brett Lee, Aussies who no longer wear a baggy green.

The Sri Lankan officials argue that had it not been for their talent scouts, Malinga would still be climbing trees to pluck King coconuts and playing softball cricket on the beach in his village near Galle. But that's being petty. Malinga has merely made a choice to extend his international career. The decision-makers would have done well to send a "thanks for the memories" card.

sandeeep.dwivedi@expressindia.com

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