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Cricket news - The ring master and the loyal apprentice
The Papare band played their beats one more time up in the highest seats of the eastern stands. They'd made the trip from Melbourne, had seen their team get pummelled by New Zealand, braved a three-hour rain delay and another batting collapse waiting for this moment: A Sri Lankan win.
Down in the field, Lasith Malinga sought out Nuwan Pradeep amongst his teammates and engulfed him in a tight hug, an embrace that lasted long enough for those behind Pradeep to side-step the two and continue the hand shakes with others.
The two broke off with wide grins and for once the smiles didn't hide fears or any inner insecurities. Sri Lanka had become so accustomed to losing ODIs - they were on a nine-match streak against full member sides - that winning seemed new, liberating even. They took their time to walk off the field, Malinga and Pradeep walking out right at the end - arm in arm.
It was not hard to see why Pradeep got this, almost fatherly treatment from Malinga (At 35, Malinga is only three years senior to Pradeep). The latter, leader but not captain, had sounded a distress call on the eve of the game, urging his teammates to feel the shame of losing. The memo didn't quite reach the batsmen, but Pradeep answered it with career-best figures of 4 for 31 to end his side's horror sequence in ODIs.
Pradeep, termed "the main man" by Isuru Udana after the game, was curiously left out on a similar green top against New Zealand. So this was another comeback for him, after the innumerable ones he's had to make when different body parts - a hamstring here, a shoulder there and another hamstring - gave up on him. But he has a history of responding to cold calls. He hadn't played cricket with a seasoned ball till he was 20 and stumbled upon serious cricket only after entering and winning a television channel Sirasa's fast bowlers' talent hunt.
When it became clear this 'Sirasa' was going to be Sri Lanka's big hope of defending 187 on this greenish wicket, Malinga stationed himself at mid-on and mid-off, hand-holding him through his spells. He was going to be the Arjuna Ranatunga to Pradeep's Muralitharan, the leader's jiggly belly under the oversized sweater and sparkle in the apprentice's eyes lending more credence to the comparison.
Pradeep's in-out career has cleared a few things for him. He knows what he is not. He is not express with the ball, but uncomfortably skiddy for a batsman because of his slingy action. He doesn't make you hop with his bouncers but his short balls climb steeply. He reckons he may not be best-suited for white-ball cricket - he went for 106 in his 10 overs in an ODI against India in Mohali. But hand him a green-top and seaming conditions, he can run a hoodwink job.
His first delivery nipped sharply past Hashmatullah Shahidi's outside edge. When Shahidi turned the strike over after three unconvincing prods, Malinga went over to have a word with Pradeep. Zazai, who had raced to 30, was dropped off Malinga in a previous over after an unconvincing pull shot. Another short ball was in the offing and when it arrived, this time the batsman was sensationally caught at fine-leg by a diving Thisara Perera.
Pradeep then continued toying with Shahidi, bowling him a series of away seamers interspersed by a bouncer. One delivery angled across eventually climbed steeply on the left-hander and had him nicking to the keeper. Pradeep's first spell of 5-1-14-2 had left Afghanistan reeling and the Sri Lankan fans bouncing.
When he came back, they'd been subdued by their Afghan counterparts sitting in the lower seats of the same stand as Gulbadin Naib and Najibullah Zadran orchestrated a comeback. The break between spells had affected Pradeep's accuracy for his two attempted bouncers bounced well over and were wided. When another one sailed over keeper Kusal Perera's head for five wides, Malinga popped up for another chat. The partnership had extended to 64 and Sri Lankan shoulders had began slumping. What worked previously wasn't going to work now. A Plan B was needed.
Pradeep instantly shelved the short ball and landed the next delivery further up to Naib. It nipped back into the Afghanistan skipper and trapped him LBW. Another identical ball deviated off the seam and took out Rashid Khan's off pole. Sri Lanka were home and dry now. Fittingly, Malinga completed the formalities with a couple of his patented yorkers that lit up both the zing bails and Sri Lanka's fortunes.
There were no over-the-top celebrations and understandably so. Sri Lanka's problems - the batting - will not cease to exist after this win. With the quality of opposition to come, this victory, at best, may register as a flash in the pan, the little murmurings of a patient in a coma. But just for the hope that springs eternal, for the glimpses that keep the lover interested, this scrap will mean a lot. For Sri Lanka. For the ring master Malinga, and for one of his loyal apprentices, Pradeep.
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