Playing in your last game is never easy. If you are a big name it becomes a much more difficult proposition. You have a reputation to defend and the pressure of living up to the expectations of your team-mates, countrymen and fans. Many greats have taken their last walk from the 22-yards to the confines of the pavilion with myriad emotions.
Walking out on the field, knowing you will not wear your country’s cap or colours again is a tough ask for the fiercest of competitors. When Lasith Malinga took the field to bowl the last set of the allotted ten overs against Bangladesh at the RPS Colombo stadium, he must have felt a familiar emotion. The kind of nervousness mixed with a touch of anxiety that he went through when he wore the Lankan Lions cap for the first time on his Test debut against Australia at Darwin.
That era was dominated by new-ball operators like Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Zaheer Khan, Shaun Pollock whose classical actions were being emulated by wannabes across the world.
Malinga was different; he was a ‘Slinga.’ The kind of sling-arm action that would have slapped an umpire on his left ear had he moved to his left while the Lankan was bowling from over the wicket.
Before the Slinga, came the ‘slinger’. Jeff Thomson, aka Thommo, a beach-blond Sydney sider. His action, though a type of slinging did not give the batsman a chance to see the ball before his hand appeared, after pivoting his body to the full, to deliver the ball. Like a bullet, the cherry rose sharply with a dangerous touch off the good length aimed the throat of an unsuspecting batsman.
Unlike Malinga, Thommo delivered the ball from straight on top of his head. From a 12 o’clock angle. Malinga’s arm came more at a little past 2 o’clock, almost at 60 degrees. Both equally lethal, the two ‘slingers’ used different strategies to harvest their wickets. Thommo relied on sheer pace and an unusual bounce to terrorise batsmen into giving away their wickets. Malinga, on the other hand, used toe crushing yorkers, changes of pace and variation to make batsmen fall on their knees as their stumps were shattered.
While he gave up playing Test cricket early in his career, Malinga made his mark in the shorter formats of the game. He finished with 338 wickets in One Dayers and 97 scalps in Twenty20s.
Even as pundits continued to write off the affable assassin over the past few years, he always got back at them with his performances as we recently saw in the last edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL).
The way he bowled in his last match against Bangladesh was proof of his commitment to his team. It was like watching Malinga of old. Two sizzling yorkers, perfectly guided missiles, saw the backs of Tamim Iqbal and Soumya Sarkar. The final flourish came off his last ball in international cricket when he scalped the last man, Mustafizur Rahman caught at mid off to help his team win by 91 runs.
Last match hurrahs are few and far between. Some like Greg Chappell and Alastair Cook had dream beginnings and endings to their international careers with big hundreds in both the matches while others faded away into the sunset. When Don Brad-man walked out to bat against England at the Oval in August 1948 in his last test, no one would have imagined that the greatest Test batsmen ever would be bowled for a nought. The dismissal made headlines, the next day, overshadowing performances by his team-mates.
Just as timing is an important element in different aspects of cricket - batting bowling and fielding - it is also paramount for a sportsperson to know when to call it a day. From an Indian perspective, two legends decided to hang up their boots at the right time. Vijay Merchant and Sunil Gavaskar left the Indian dressing room after superlative performances in their last Test matches.
Merchant scored 154 against England at Delhi while Gavaskar’s classic knock of 96 runs, when he almost helped India cross the line on a minefield of a pitch at Bengaluru against Pakistan, was one of his best innings. ‘One must go when people are asking why, and not why not,’ Merchant was reported to have said after his retirement. Gavaskar’s reason for calling it quits was that he was looking at the clock after each session of play, an indication that his body was getting weary anchoring the team’s batting.
When the body refuses the directives of the mind, it is time to call it a day. Like many former greats, Lasith Malinga perfected the art of bowing out at the right time. A lesson to be learnt.