Shane Watson is bowled by Lasith Malinga

Wham, bam: Lasith Malinga bowls Shane Watson in the 2007 World Cup final

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The last battles of Lasith Malinga

All through his career he has defied convention, and authority. And as the greatest T20 bowler the world has seen reluctantly winds down, he does so his own way

Andrew Fidel Fernando |

Lasith Malinga wants to know where he should field. In the previous over he was at deep cover, which was perhaps an oversight. When a ball was struck directly at him he collected cleanly enough, but the batsmen still looked for a second.

He soon gets the captain's attention and has himself stashed away at short fine leg. This is to no avail. The batsman flicks, and the ball comes at Malinga again, this time a little to his left and at pace. He dives. Well - falls over. By the time he hits the ground, the umpire is already preparing to signal a boundary.

Chatter erupts.

The low-slung Mirando Stand at the P Sara Oval is an old-world delight. Mahogany benches filled in with rattan weave stretch out beneath rows of skinny ceiling fans. Behind the seating, pale yellow columns crowned with flowery capitals hold up a tiered takaran roof. From across the ground the scoreboard glints, its flanking walls wrapped in ivy.

For as long as international sides have played here (which for this ground is many decades; Don Bradman's Invincibles visited in 1948), photographers have parked themselves in front of this stand to use that scoreboard for a backdrop. But this is not an international match. This only barely qualifies as professional cricket. In fact, it is possible the tournament would not have been played at all had this not been an SLC election year, and had the office-bearers not required a reason to bestow grants on clubs for votes.

So at 34 years of age, the format's greatest ever bowler is playing in this - a bloated, hashed-together T20 competition of embarrassingly modest quality. Worse, he is being picked apart in the Mirando stand.

The crowd of about a hundred comprises mostly supporters of the Army Sports Club, whom Malinga's Nondescripts Cricket Club are facing. Not everyone is unsympathetic. "Fellow has injuries, no?" says one man. "Can't expect him to stop every bloody thing." A friend quickly argues the other side, because when it comes to Malinga, there is always another side. "What injuries ado? Look at his body. Does he look like a cricketer? Shame to see him like this even." A third voice, engaged in a different conversation, rises above the hubbub. "Could have nicely played for another two years, no? He is only to blame. Might have survived if he wasn't such a pandithaya - such a know-it-all."

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Malinga's childhood friend Sudath Lalintha on keeping to the slinger

A few overs later, Malinga gets the ball in hand, and suddenly the stand hushes down. Gazes that have strayed from the cricket return. One man retrieves a camera from his bag and begins to click. Even after all these years this much is still a spectacle.

Malinga kisses the ball, begins his approach, and his feet come slowly off the ground as they have since his youth on the southern coast, like they are forever being picked out of an inch of wet sand. At the crease, he gets into his explosive delivery stride and begins with the yorker - a ball he has bowled since those early days. A familiar sequence follows. The slower one he picked up through the mid-aughts, rolling his fingers beneath the ball. One back-of-a-length quick delivery, which used to be his Test-match stock ball. Two slower yorkers, the batsman halfway through the shot before making the adjustment. Then a bouncer to finish off. They score only one run off the over, but then they are tailenders. Malinga's two wickets at the top of the innings had already sparked a collapse.

Next over, at the top of his mark, Malinga looks the ball over, switches the shiny side so it points to leg, and sets off on another ambling approach. Reverse swing has always come easy to him. Not only does his low-arm action perfectly suit the craft, he also bowls with a tilted seam in the early overs, which naturally scuffs one side up. What's more, where for others reverse swing usually grants lateral movement, the ball's angle out of his hand means the swing pulls up-to-down for Malinga. He literally reverses the ball into the ground.

During Malinga's most exquisite years, even batsmen who knew they were about to be yorked were routinely powerless to prevent the rattling of their stumps. Deliveries that should have arrived at shin height ducked beneath bats, ricocheted off toes, clattered into wickets.

Malinga has since traded a few kph for several kg, but the skill - oh man, it is as it ever was. First ball of his final over, he has the ball plunging mid-pitch. As it dives, it also tails, right into leg stump, the flashing bat never threatening to interfere. He finishes with figures of 3 for 14. He would end the tournament as joint-highest wicket-taker.

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Meanwhile across town, over the next nine days, the Sri Lanka T20 side begins to ail in the Nidahas Trophy. Three times in three games they fail to defend totals, including a score of 214. When they crash out of their own party, leaving India and Bangladesh to contest the final, the judgement is in, and it is resounding.

They are short a good death bowler.

It is terrible that cricket is said to be in bed with politics in Sri Lanka, because that implies consent on the part of cricket, where, in fact, the relationship is more like a commuting woman's travails with a street harasser. Politicians are forever thirstily eyeing cricket up. They shuffle in close with low intentions, make unrequited passes, and persist despite protestation.

As it is perhaps the only pan-Sri Lankan passion, cricket is a vehicle with which people in power seek to ride into the public's good graces, and at no stage is this more apparent than when a great player nears the end of his career. When fans become wistful, politicians sidle up and attempt to persuade the star to stave off retirement for a few months. At the very least, they will be in pointed attendance at the farewell game. Kumar Sangakkara was offered the UK ambassadorship on his last day; Mahela Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan also had the president turn up at the ground; Sanath Jayasuriya was, of course, himself an MP during his final years.

Malinga, as ever, has defied the trend. He has spent his twilight years actively pissing politicians off.

Last year, at a time when his place in the team was already in question, he effectively called the sports minister a cricketing illiterate. The minister was initially incensed but eventually extended an olive branch, organising a publicised meeting between the two. At the event, Malinga somehow managed to make things worse. The photo of the two shaking hands has the politician wearing a smarmy, for-the-cameras grin. The bowler looks like he would rather be feeding his arm through industrial machinery.

Months later, when a public "ministerial probe" into Sri Lanka's poor form was held, an easy PR exercise for the minister, Malinga rocked up to the event and hijacked the narrative by shellacking the cricket board.

It is no surprise, Malinga thinks, he has not been picked for Sri Lanka since. But this is only the latest of his battles. The wars have run on for a decade now.

The first defiance, in 2008 at age 24, was to Arjuna Ranatunga- The Godfather, basically - who in a brief and headmasterly reign at SLC, had demanded Malinga shear his recently grown curls.

Malinga's father, S Milton, had little success trying to get his son to pay attention to his school work when he was young

Malinga's father, S Milton, had little success trying to get his son to pay attention to his school work when he was young Andrew Fidel Fernando / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"It's a gentleman's game, is what Arjuna told me," Malinga remembers, sat on a gym bench at Khettarama stadium, where he comes to bowl in the academy nets a few mornings a week. These sessions serve a greater purpose than merely keeping Malinga sharp: they are his way of insisting he is still here. That he is not going away.

"So if it's a gentleman's game, tell me - I have played 15 years of international cricket and have I ever been fined for bad behaviour? If you want to talk about discipline, where else do you want to look than my conduct on the field?"

That he feels misunderstood is clear in the first few minutes of our conversation. In the years following the first skirmish - years in which the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai learned to bellow his name and gold-tipped wigs began to adorn the scalps of spectators across the planet - Malinga found himself increasingly besieged at home. "I only play for money - that's what they say, no? There's a sports talk show that has had this as their theme in about 90% of their episodes." In the evenings, Sri Lanka gaped in fascination at the IPL's explosive early years, bars and restaurants switching to the cricket during their busiest hours, but in the light of day it fancied itself too demure and sensible to be taken in. Malinga was far from the only Sri Lankan to perform for the neighbours and turn a profit for himself, but for many he became the flag-bearer for the cash-chasers.

Partly this was down to his sustained success: forever 1 for 22 in his final over, firing in yorkers that seemed to actually disappear underground before making an eruption of the wickets. Partly it was down to his predilections: the growing collection of tattoos and sports cars setting off the same cultural tripwire that had prompted Ranatunga's demand about the hair.

Where those more beloved of the island, the Sangakkaras and the Jayawardenes (who, unlike Malinga, had actually captained IPL sides), viewed the media as a battleground and frequently waged successful offensives, Malinga's response to public affront was to recoil. If he ever lashed out, the responses heaved with so much raw emotion they usually worsened his position. In 2013, while SLC and the players were in the midst of one of their annual contracts crises, Malinga felt a TV reporter had crowded him as he stepped out of his cyan Mitsubishi Evo X. "Vadak balan yanava manussayo yanna," he spat out - effectively "Mind your own business", though some of the snap in the rebuke is lost in the translation. For several weeks, his words became a national catchphrase, the media rounding on him en masse.

"How many players anywhere get that kind of treatment?" he snarls, thinking back on the coverage. "At least someone is benefiting. If they are making a profit by selling me, then never mind. I am happy they can do that."

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Through Malinga's career, these upsets have collected like pebbles between his bowling spikes. Now, they define him more than ever. He still seethes about the flak he copped for conceding 54 runs in the 2012 World T20 final. He is sore at supposedly being elbowed out of the T20 captaincy in 2016. Most of all, he is bristling at Sri Lanka's selectors. For eight months, they have had him dangling. They have insisted he remains an option in T20 cricket at least, citing his skill and his experience. Yet a place in the squad has not been forthcoming.

If there was any doubt that latter-day Malinga is a man fuelled primarily by grievance, consider the following. Last December he made the extraordinary decision to break a seven-year first-class drought, appearing for Nondescripts in a three-dayer against Tamil Union. His previous first-class game was his final Test match, in the 2010 series in which Murali retired.

Why now, you wonder? Why imperil his beleaguered body in what for him was essentially a meaningless club game?

"When I got left out of the squad for the India series, the selectors said they were resting me," he says, perched now on the very edge of the gym bench. "So that's the thing. I wanted to show that I can even play a three-dayer. I don't need resting."

Even the act of showing himself to be fit is a small aggression.

It is not that Malinga seeks out controversy or wilfully strives against the grain. Being different is just what has always come naturally. The bowling style is a case in point. The origin story might have you believe he specifically engineered the round-arm action to exploit the lack of bounce in the beach matches of his youth. Not so: he just doesn't remember bowling any other way.

In his early years, Malinga's uniqueness was occasionally an impediment. Some coaches had no idea what to do with him, never having seen his like. Others took the opinion that he would ruin his back soon enough, and withheld from him their attention. These were the first real doubters. Since his late teens, Malinga had folks he wished to prove wrong.

"I hope you understand what I mean when I say Lasith is street smart," says Jayawardene, the captain who oversaw Malinga's sharp international rise. "He is such an unusual bowler, he had to learn so many things on his own - even when to release the ball to get the line and length he wants. That is all different for him than it is for others."

Lasi comes home: (from top to bottom) the beach in Rathgama where Malinga would run and bowl, the lagoon he swam in as a child, and the public ground where he played his first hard-ball match

Lasi comes home: (from top to bottom) the beach in Rathgama where Malinga would run and bowl, the lagoon he swam in as a child, and the public ground where he played his first hard-ball match Andrew Fidel Fernando / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Champaka Ramanayake, who has coached Malinga since he was 17, confirms a remarkable independence. "Sometimes you have to hold a bowler's hand, but Lasith was never that sort of a guy. Even when he was young, he would come to a practice session with a very clear idea of what he wanted to work on. My job, I realised, was to support him. He picked up quite early how important the yorker would be for him. In a lot of sessions that's all he bowled." Stories of Ramanayake nailing boots to the batting crease for Malinga to bowl at for hours have become part of Sri Lankan cricketing lore.

Later, once Malinga honed his craft and became one of the great limited-overs match-winners, his team-mates began to see the benefit in his unconventional patterns of thought. "Lasith was a bit of a quiet guy to begin with, but we always knew he was very intelligent," Jayawardene says. "Once he was settled it was quite clear that he is someone who thinks outside the box. The way he looks at a batsman and works out where to bowl to him - he comes up with things a lot of bowlers wouldn't."

Even the most ardent Malinga critic will not dispute that as a tactician, the man is a small wonder. He remembers almost every wicket, going back to his first school match at age 17. "It is a big thing to have that memory," Malinga says. "If you can log your successes and you know what went into your failures, you end up with sharper plans."

The plan to Sachin Tendulkar in the 2011 World Cup final was one such. Having had Tendulkar nicking behind in a Test the previous year, Malinga sought to recreate the dismissal. In the final, he set Tendulkar up by bowling a few balls at the body, then began to move it away. "I needed to get him driving," he remembers. "If it was far enough away from Sachin's body, I had a chance." The moment the edge hit the keeper's gloves, Malinga was a streak of jubilation, running full tilt, arms spread, all the way from mid-pitch to square leg, uncaring, in a suddenly silent stadium, that the Wankhede was not his crowd that day.

It was in the other big game against India - the 2014 World T20 final - that Sri Lanka best weaponised a Malinga strategy. It helped that on that occasion he was captain. Though the leadership had fallen into his lap only in the course of the tournament, and the first two wins as captain were a little haphazard, Malinga was finally ready to seize his moment in the approach to the final. He sat his bowlers down on the eve of the game and acquainted them with a little heresy: "We don't have to take wickets to win this match."

"It wasn't something that Lasith had to convince us about too much," says Nuwan Kulasekara, Malinga's death-bowling partner in this match, and many others. "By this game he had played so much T20, and because of the IPL he knew the Indian batsmen as well. We trusted him. But I still don't think anyone would have expected we could tie India up like we did. Even I was staggered at how well it worked, actually."

Captain Marvel: though he hasn't been seen in the role much, Malinga is a smart tactician who knows how to get the best out of his players

Captain Marvel: though he hasn't been seen in the role much, Malinga is a smart tactician who knows how to get the best out of his players © AFP/Getty Images

Key to the plan's success was not only that it accounted for India's weaknesses but that it was also a beautiful fit for the Sri Lanka attack. Angelo Mathews, Sachithra Senanayake and Rangana Herath were proven squeezers. In Kulasekara, Malinga had especial faith. The two had played together, at various levels, for 13 years. "By this stage we knew in our gut what the other could do," Malinga says. "As long as we got to the death overs without too much damage, Kule and I knew that we could topple them."

In another universe, one in which Sri Lankan bowlers were the equals of batsmen, perhaps the Malinga-Kulasekara partnership would be held in the esteem it deserves. They began together under Ramanayake, way back in 2002, playing for Galle CC - two rural kids with identical stories about bowling day long in coconut groves, then cooling off in the river while the sun sank into the trees. So prolific had they been at the lower levels that they had been assigned nicknames. Malinga was daakaththa - the sickle - the arm coming down almost flush with the horizon, wickets reaped in sheaves. Kulasekara was niyapoththa - the fingernail - inswingers picking insistently away.

By the end of the decade each had developed a mean yorker, and it was this delivery that landed Sri Lanka their first global trophy in 18 years. Daakaththa had learned in the IPL that the neighbours didn't fancy the lap sweep or the scoop, and so hatched the plan to stack the off side and go wide of the stumps. Niyapoththa, buying whole heartedly into his friend's design, made sure to bowl the occasional straighter ball, just to confound anticipation of the wider one. Together, in one of the biggest games of their lives, they conceded only 13 from the 18th, 19th and 20th overs. Much is made of Yuvraj Singh's failure in that game (though it is worth remembering that he hit 60 off 43 balls two matches previous, against Australia), but what deserves more attention is the skill with which Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni were muzzled. Of the 13 balls they faced in the last three overs, only nine runs came off the bat. That Sri Lanka prevented boundaries almost to the total exclusion of pursuing wickets was revisionist enough, but the plan to Dhoni sprang from a further Malinga unorthodoxy.

"It was when I thought about Dhoni that I really thought wide yorkers would work," Malinga says. "A lot of people think: 'Don't face a cricketer based on his reputation.' For some batsmen, I don't believe that, because these guys are huge names. When they come to the middle, the reputation also comes. We knew that Dhoni is someone who likes to hit sixes. I thought: How can we prevent that? Even if he hits a four, it's like a victory for us. So, that's why the wide yorker. That's why it worked."

Five times Dhoni swung at Malinga in the last over, mostly attempting the big shot - the helicopter - over the leg side. Three times he missed altogether, two wide yorkers and a straight one sneaking through beneath bat. When he did make contact, the ball merely dribbled off the square. He had had four runs off seven balls at innings' end; one of the cleverest cricketers of his era outwitted.

Malinga led in only six more T20s, partly due to injury. When Sri Lanka were running out of captains in an ODI series against India last year, he was no better than third choice.

On the shoulders of a giant: injuries have slowed Malinga down to a near halt, but his T20 numbers are still among the best in the game

On the shoulders of a giant: injuries have slowed Malinga down to a near halt, but his T20 numbers are still among the best in the game © AFP

They make a strange pair, Sri Lanka's world-tournament winning captains. Ranatunga of 1996, a man so of-the-establishment that in a sense he is its primary architect. Malinga of 2014, the surly outsider, ever straining against power. Between these two careers, the story of modern Sri Lankan cricket takes shape.

When you tell a southerner that Malinga hails from Rathgama village, a knowing expression descends and they respond that, okay, that makes some sort of sense. Though for the remainder of Sri Lanka, the south famously breeds feisty folk, the region having produced two armed uprisings in living memory, within the province itself it is felt the western curve is especially spirited.

Rathgama hugs the coast just at the bottom end of that curve, a few kilometres north of Galle. On a stifling Thursday afternoon I make the trip from Colombo. But the place I arrive in is not as advertised.

In fact, the locals seem uncommonly endearing. First, after I fall asleep on the bus and miss my stop, the trishaw driver who ferries me back to Rathgama refuses payment. "I don't do hires, so don't worry," he grins. "This is a family vehicle. My house is anyway nearby here only." Next, after I duck into an eatery and discover I don't have the correct change for the soft drink I have guzzled, the shopkeeper hollers to "just leave what you have on the table" from the back kitchen she has disappeared into. Later in the day, another trishaw driver attempts to gently fleece me but breaks down and confesses after we strike up a conversation en route. "Aney sorry, ah. You are an outsider, no? So I put the price a little higher, to 170. But it's okay - you give me 130. It's more than enough."

I begin to wonder if, like Malinga, his home town feels hard done by public opinion. But as with the man, the truth about the place is not so simple. Through the course of the afternoon, I put questions about the area's reputation to several locals. It is probably more peaceful here now than it used to be, but the notoriety is not entirely undeserved, they say.

For the day tripper Rathgama is an enchantment. Sure, the hefty Colombo-Galle main road spews noise and diesel fumes into the immediate vicinity, but head a little way inland. Take a jaunt down one of the narrow, flower-speckled lanes. You might run into a pair of schoolteachers chiding young girls in white uniform, on their walk home. "How many times have we told you children to stay close to edge of the road, ah? Do you want to get run over?" (No vehicle, by this stage, has passed for at least ten minutes.) Step out by the lagoon, a wooded island at its centre, and watch a fisherman in his oruwa canoe fuss over his basket net. It is in these still, brackish waters that Malinga swam almost daily, building power in his shoulders, or so the legend goes. On the banks are the palm trees he used to climb to pluck the young coconuts he and his friends would crack open after tennis-ball matches.

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His childhood home is ringed by all manner of vegetation: a brooding, broad-canopied mango tree, a young papaya plant, several banana palms, then another towering trunk, fat jackfruits practically screaming out to be harvested. From inside the squat house, a saronged and shirtless man with a full head of white hair appears and introduces himself. This is S Milton, father of Malinga, and a retired bus mechanic who worked out of the Galle depot. He is initially reluctant to speak to me, probably due to his son's strained relationship with those in my profession. But eventually I convince him to chat, and he tells me, haltingly, about Malinga's boisterous boyhood - about how he would insist, to his parents' dismay, that he needn't spend as much time with his books as other children because his memory was so good. About how even when they forced him to study, friends would encircle the house on bicycles then whisk him away to play the moment his parents' backs were turned. Dwelling on his son's long and eventful career a little later, he becomes emotional. "He has done more than we ever expected. Whatever a son could do for his parents, he has done."

At the sweeping Rathgama public ground, from which the roar of the adjacent ocean is heard, I run into an old friend of Malinga's. Sudath Lalintha kept wicket when, in 1999, Malinga played his first ever hard-ball match - a casual inter-village encounter. "The pace he bowled at that day, hammoo! Balls were passing me to leg, to off, over the top. I was getting scolded by everyone to give up the gloves if I couldn't do the job. Even the straight ones I barely had time to get up from my haunches and catch. The most I could do was throw my arm out and stop it with some part of the body. Sixty-six from extras itself. I still have the score in my diary. Then he bowled one at the wickets and you should have heard the sound. CHA-TAAAN the off stump went flying. Kumar aiya - the batsman who got out - was laughing to himself on the way back because he didn't even see that ball. That was the start. That was Lasi's first leather-ball wicket."

For men of a certain age, the memories of a boyhood shared with the most famous son of this soil are joyful. Here is where they raided a jambu tree together and got chased off by the owner. This is the spot they used to hang out on the beach. There is the lane they set their pitch up on for evening games. But much of this joy is confined to the past. When they speak of the man Malinga has become, there is equivocation. That he has not done much for the village is one complaint; that he doesn't visit often, another. There are more stories… of burned bridges, of forgotten roots.

It is difficult to tell which, if any, of these charges are fair, but what a contradiction it must all seem to Malinga. Across the globe he is hailed as a blinding limited-overs force, having triumphed so routinely in the most critical match situations. In the IPL, the most moneyed league the sport has seen, Malinga might be the all-time MVP - his wicket haul unmatched, his economy rate a thing of widespread admiration. Over there, where no one speaks his language, he is loved. Here, among folks with whom he has shared meals and classrooms and childhoods, there is no more than qualified praise.

"It is incredible what he has achieved," almost anyone will concede. What gets to Malinga is that it is too often followed by a "but".

At every press conference Malinga gives now he is asked when he will retire. On one recent occasion he replied: "Actually, I don't just want to play the 2019 World Cup, I want to play in 2023 as well."

© AFP

This has got to be a joke, right? Because even Ramanayake, who knows Malinga and his body as well as Malinga himself, doesn't believe he has any more ODI cricket in him. And in 2023 he would be 39 years old and the knees and ankles would have to be bionic.

In the end a joke is what it turns out to be. Malinga chooses to spend May at the IPL, as a bowling consultant for Mumbai Indians, instead of playing in SLC's domestic one-day competition. The decision essentially puts him out of contention for ODI selection. It is probably a sensible call, as his knees are unlikely to sustain ten-over workouts, and it is in the shortest format that he would be of most use anyway - the World T20 in two years' time a more reasonable target than next year's 50-over event.

And yet, Malinga has got something desperately wrong. How does it look? How does it appear when, having been picked in a domestic squad, he fails to show because he is at the IPL? How will it seem to those who take every chance to malign him? Does it not play into their hands? All of his sweating: the commutes to the Khettarama nets to bowl at young batsmen who could never have handled him in his pomp, the sweltering afternoons chasing leather in SLC's ridiculous 23-team T20 tournament - all of that can be made to seem irrelevant, because for the second time in his career he has effectively called time on a form of international cricket while at the big-money showcase across the Palk Strait. In 2011, when he announced his retirement from Tests at the age of 27, he had also been in India.

I met him one day at Khettarama, not long after this year's IPL auction, and asked him if he was disappointed at being overlooked as a player. It didn't seem to bother him. He was excited about the mentoring role, and spoke of how much he has to share with young players. How much he has shared with Jasprit Bumrah already. How he has no such relationship yet with any young Sri Lankan quicks. This led naturally to further airing of grouses, something that reliably animates him. In moments he was maligning the phonies who "kiss the lion on their crest as if that is going to make them any better at bowling".

But later, I saw something intimate. Malinga slipped his bowling boots on, took a cone out into a deserted net, put it down where the batsman's feet would go, scattered about a dozen balls at the top of his mark, and began to run in and bowl yorkers. There were no coaches or selectors in sight. He had no idea I had hung around.

This, I realised, was Malinga as he wished to be seen. But the Malinga, also, known by so few. Team-mates speak of a relentless intensity, opponents of insurmountable nerve, captains of an inbuilt cricketing barometer that informs him of the exact manner in which a batsman feels pressure and what he must do to take advantage. He has taken countless top orders by the collar, confounded any number of chases, reverse-swung balls in ways they have not been reverse-swung before, and through so much of it he has wondered, the question raging inside him, why this pure act of bowling, the part of him that at 34 is still a spectacle, why it has not been enough.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

 

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