Item in CRICINFO in The ISLAND, 28 May 2023
Lasith Malinga, now a bowling consultant with Rajasthan Royals, has been watching Chennai Super Kings’ games with particular interest. Matheesha Pathirana, CSK’s death-overs specialist, not only bowls with the same, unusual round-arm action with which Malinga dominated the IPL for many years, but is also in a sense a protege. Over the last three years, Malinga has worked sporadically with Pathirana in Sri Lanka’s high performance centre, and has advised him on what he needs to do to build a career.
In this interview with ESPNcricinfo, Malinga shares his insights on the 20-year-old’s technique and progress. And he couldn’t disagree more vehemently with MS Dhoni’s suggestion that Pathirana “shouldn’t even get close” to red-ball cricket.
When did you first hear about Matheesha?
I found out about Matheesha Pathirana after the Under-19 World Cup [in 2020], when I got a call from Mahela Jayawardene, who was working as a consultant with SLC (Sri Lanka Cricket). He said: ‘Mali, there’s a boy from Kandy, who bowls just like you, and he bowls fast. But it’s hard to play him in a match because he bowls two sides of the wicket and doesn’t have the control. Can you do something with him?’
So he sent Matheesha to me, and we met at Khettarama. He didn’t have a lot of experience. But I knew straight away that he’s a fearless and strong cricketer. That’s really important. I started off very simply with him, and I told him this: ‘Don’t think about picking formats yet. You have to play whatever Sri Lanka needs you to play. If you get injured and then have to pick formats, that’s a different thing. But you’ve been bowling with this action since you were little and you haven’t had problems. So I don’t think it’ll be that difficult for you.’
You know this action better than anyone. What did you think about the way he was bowling?
In terms of skill, I told him he needs to learn how to bowl with the new and old ball, not just one. With this kind of action, you need the same skillset for Tests, ODIs, and T20s. It’s just that the way you use different skills varies for each format. He doesn’t really swing the ball, because his wrist is too straight as the arm comes around. I told him he has to raise that wrist about an inch-and-a-half. That’ll take him about two or three years, because he has bowled the way he’s bowling for 19 years.
For now, he can manage with what he has. He can bowl good yorkers, but he didn’t have a lot of consistency. I told him how to bowl the slower one as well. Because he bowls with my action, it’s easy for him to dip his slower balls. So I told him: ‘Let’s work on the dipping slower one.’ Now he bowls it pretty well. Still, he needs a bit more control, but it’s in a good place.
What do you think of his success this season? (Pathirana has 15 wickets from 10 matches for CSK, with an economy rate of 7.56, having bowled mostly at the death.)
He’s bowling well in the IPL, but he needs to improve a bit to be ready for international cricket. You don’t get to play 12 players in internationals, like you can in the IPL this year. They use him as a death bowler only at CSK. But if you play for the national team you’re definitely going to have to bowl some powerplay overs. That’s where he needs the swing, which he doesn’t have right now.
It goes back to his wrist position. The advantage of that wrist position is that you get good dip, and you can swing balls into the ground. But you won’t swing balls from side to side. You won’t get it to tail into the batter’s legs. He needs to start creating that angle with the seam, where it comes out diagonally, rather than horizontally. If he fixes that, he can do some great things.
He needs bowling intelligence too, because after a few matches the opposition will work out who you are, and you need to learn how to survive from that point onwards. I think the best thing for that is playing 10 Tests. That’s how you build your bowling fitness. I’ve played 30 Tests, and that was vital to me building up bowling fitness for ODIs and T20s, because when you’re bowling 25-30 overs an innings, you have to sustain your skill through all those spells.
CSK have asked him to do one job, and do it well…
He got a great opportunity because of the Impact Player rule. He can start bowling in the 12th or 13th over. So the weakness he has – bowling with the new ball – gets minimised. He’s also bowling when batters really have to take him on. When you bowl with this action, batters have trouble picking up the ball. And with the control he has for now, and because he’s mentally strong, he’s been able to do well. He’s also got a good captain who will set good fields for him.
His yorker is 145kph and is fantastic. But he needs more control. If he bowls five yorkers, he’ll only land two correctly. But I’m sure if he keeps working on it as he is, he’ll nail it in about a year or two.
You used to reverse-swing the ball into the ground, because of the way the ball came out of your hand. Is that how Pathirana is dipping it too?
Actually, he’s got an advantage over me there, because his arm comes even lower than mine. It’s really tough to hit a six off him, especially off the front foot. That’s his natural advantage. Especially in the subcontinent – and when there’s low bounce in the track – he’ll be really effective.
What have you thought of the way MS Dhoni captains him?
MS has figured out that he can’t bowl with the new ball yet. He also uses him against local Indian batters at the crease – players who don’t play international cricket. With the 145kph pace, and his action, it’s hard for them to play him. That’s just MS’ 20 years of experience at work. He also gets him to lower his pace against batters who are purely power players. Against batters who use the pace – like a Rohit Sharma, or a Mahela Jayawardene, or a Virat Kohli – those players Matheesha might struggle against for now.
Dhoni has said Matheesha shouldn’t play Test cricket, but it sounds like you seriously disagree with Dhoni on that.
MS Dhoni is saying he should just play ICC tournaments. I wonder if he’s just saying that for fun (laughs). It’s hard to do that when you’re playing for the national team.
I think anyone who tells him not to play red-ball cricket is doing that because they think he will get injured. I played red-ball cricket first. No one said anything like that to me. I played red-ball cricket between 2004 to 2010, but I had a 16-year international career, and I played a lot of IPL, plus Big Bash and all the other leagues. In all that time I never left the field after injuring a hamstring, or a groin, or my back, or my calf. Maybe a lot of people will oppose me, but I don’t think we should just presume that he will get injured. I’ve played cricket this way and bowled like him, so I know what the challenges are.
But you did have major ankle and knee injuries…
You can get bone injuries, but that is down to the effort you put in every ball. But I would tell him: get your Test cap. Maybe you’ll play just one. Maybe you’ll play 10. Maybe you will play 100 – who knows? When he plays 15-20 Tests, he will develop not just his bowling fitness and his skill, but also figure out how to set batters up for dismissals, and how to put a spell together. That’s not something you can just tell him about. He has to do it to understand it properly. If when he starts playing Tests, his body starts reacting badly, then you can reassess.
How should he be developed over the next little while?
I somehow want to make this guy even better than me. I think in the next Test tour, try to get him involved, and give him some ODIs as well. See how he plays in the next three years, and then see what the future course needs to be. If he plays 10 or 15 Tests in the next three years, that will be invaluable to his development.
As an example: you know, I only learned that you can dip and reverse the ball at the same time in the last Test that I played, in 2010. Usually they bowl me from the Fort End at Galle, and it’s really easy to reverse the ball from that end with the wind coming across the ground. After six years, I finally got a good spell from the Pavilion End, and I learned how to dip and reverse a cricket ball. No one can tell when Matheesha will get those important revelations about his game.
We’re talking about protecting him from playing for Sri Lanka, before he’s even properly played for Sri Lanka. He’s only 20 years old.