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Cricket news - That time when Malinga bowled to Amla

Malinga to Amla: A master was taming a master

Sentimentality lingers, unspoken, in the background of this tournament. Some of the players on show are being read the last rites of their careers. They will not play another World Cup. They might never represent their countries again. These last few matches present an opportunity to see these cricketers. Really see them. Watch how they move, what they do. Remember the shots they play or the balls they bowl. Take a memory home with you. "Listen here," you'll say to anyone and everyone. "Let me tell you about the time I watched Lasith Malinga bowl to Hashim Amla."

In their pomp, this would have been a battle royale. If the game had meant something to South Africa, it would have had more drama and significance. If the match had been closer, it would have had more intensity. But despite all that, the match-up felt significant in its own right simply for what it was. Even if they meet again in T20, it won't feel like this. This was understated but it was real. It was the meeting of two greats. The clash of two titans. Perhaps for the last time in the greens and blues of their nations.

And so we watched. We watched because we aren't yet ready to let go.

Both players are in their mid-30s yet are still pillars of their teams. Both are fighting the tide of time as best they can. The cricketers they have been are still evident, if just more and more fleeting. Malinga's performance against England in Sri Lanka's last match was a reminder of the immense skill and force of personality he can summon. Amla hasn't done anything quite so impactful but there was a half-century against New Zealand full of the timing and the poise which have set him apart.

But today, when Malinga took the ball and Amla settled over his bat, you just knew this was real. You knew this was gold standard cricket.

Things started sedately enough. Malinga trundled a ball outside off-stump which Amla left alone, both men easing into their work. The very best players try and assert themselves early, though, and the power struggle didn't take long to begin. Within the first two overs from Malinga, he had passed Amla's bat three times and the batsman had returned fire with three crisply hit boundaries. Three blows each. Three statements of intent each.

When you watched Amla today, when you really watched him, what struck you wasn't the timing or the ability to play all round the wicket. It was how still he was. Like a predator in the undergrowth not daring to move for fear of making a noise which disturbs its prey. Only when the bowler was in his delivery stride did Amla shuffle into his work. Even then, his bat, already raised, didn't move. It was a stark contrast to Faf du Plessis who bobbed up and down, waved his bat around as if it was a lightsabre on the attack.

As he does, Malinga tested the composure which has helped Amla accumulate 55 international hundreds with balls that zipped of the surface and others that looped and dipped. He zoned in on the stumps and then tempted with width. Facing the Sri Lankan is an examination not just of technique but of strategy. What will he bowl next? What is he setting the batsman up for? Once Malinga bowled Quinton de Kock with a searing yorker, Amla played him watchfully, patting back anything remotely suspicious. He was not being lured out of his bubble.

Amla has his own tricks too, mind. Hitting the ball on top of the bounce is a priceless commodity because it turns good length balls into scoring opportunities and short balls into gimmes. There's risk involved, mind you. It takes skill and judgement to be able to do successfully. Luckily, they are the two foundations on which Amla has built more than 18,500 runs for South Africa.

He hit the ball on the up a lot, often, as is his way, without moving his feet that much. Not that he looked like getting it wrong. His first boundary off Malinga came when he laced a good length ball, on the up, through cover. Later, he cut a non-short ball from Suranga Lakmal past backward point. Many other batsmen would have left these balls or run them down to third man for one. Amla stood still and then pounced. Both balls cracked off the bat.

Malinga bowled five overs with the new ball. Somehow, he conceded 30 runs. He next came on with the game in the balance. Amla and du Plessis were well-set and Sri Lanka looked to the bowler who has won them so many matches over the last 15 years. As it was against England, Malinga was the man who would have to win it. Whereas he mixed things up in his opening spell, his plan was narrower in scope for his return. He slung in yorkers, aiming for toes or stumps.

Like Amla, Malinga operates at a sedate pace although the reason is different. His job has been tougher on the body so his is an enforced tempo of chill. Yet still he runs in. Not as hard as he used to, of course, but he comes in anyway. As he bowls more, the walk back to his mark becomes slower and slower. In the field, he saunters about looking knackered. But when he gets to the crease, his slingshot action still whips with enough venom to compensate.

Neither Amla nor de Plessis could get on top of him in his second spell, each delivery honing in at them, giving neither player room to free their arms. Malinga missed his length with maybe one attempted yorker but otherwise, his accuracy was relentless. In ten deliveries at Amla in that spell, the batsman mustered just two runs. A master was taming a master.

In the end, Malinga couldn't deliver the breakthrough. Amla probably won the battle if not the duel. We will call that evens. But after seeing these two giants go at it, the result was not what stood out. Instead, watching these two men gave us glimpses of the class that has powered them to remarkable heights. Reminders of how brilliant these cricketers have been and of the service they have given. Reminders, also, that nobody can go on forever. Things change. People change. They get older, they move on. The quality remains but the will and the faculties diminish.

Which is why days like today, when two great players do battle perhaps for the last time, are the sorts of days to remember and cherish, to watch and analyse, to soak up and enjoy. A reminder, for life not just for cricket, to take time to savour the special moments. Because at some point, there will be nothing more to watch. At some point, all of us will have to let go.

"Listen here. Let me tell you about the time I watched Lasith Malinga bowl to Hashim Amla."

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