Andrew Fidel Fernando in Port Elizabeth
“Knock him out so he falls on to the stumps.” This is Shane Bond’s fantasy cricket dismissal.
“Can a plane take off without a run-up?” There’s Shoaib Akhtar bristling at being asked to shorten his run-up to improve over-rates.
“This is my place. I will be back soon, to reclaim what is mine.” That one is Mohammad Asif, after being briefly losing his spot in the side.
Fast bowlers all. With fast-bowling attitudes. Collars popped. Wind blowing through flowing hair. Chainsaw celebrations. Concentrated fury. Curtly, talking to no man. You need not be that quick. You could be 135kph, slinging swing-and-seam (James Anderson has one hell of a mouth). But if you are a fast bowler, this is your house. Here is where you live. In box-office, big-swinging, trash-talking, gaze-upon-me-and-tremble, hyper-macho land.
Not our guy, though. Oh no. None of this for Suranga Lakmal. He is from a small town on the south coast of Sri Lanka – a region that is famously feisty. The town name, Debarawewa, literally means “lake of wasps”. And yet, in this guy rolls, from not quite 30 yards – an innocuous tumbling of over-long limbs, leading up to a stable landing, and an unremarkable action. Good wrist position? Check. Upright seam? Check. Hitting a good length? You bet. Menacing? Not really. Intimidating? Try again. Box office? Not a chance.
When he beats the bat, even several times in the same over, he smiles. Not snarls. Not glares. He breaks out in a friendly half-grin, pivots, ambles back to his mark, and in he rolls again to prompt another waft from the batsman. Gives another smile in response. There has never been, across 57 Tests, a sustained attempt to be anything other than this. A genial operator.
But on tours like this, when the team is looking to him at virtually every turn, when batsmen have given up yet another sizeable first-innings lead, and in this instance, when there are two inexperienced quicks to advise, Lakmal is far from unremarkable. He is not satisfied with inconspicuous returns.
“There was not a ball that he delivered today that you would claim was unplayable. But there were plenty you could argue were barely playable. And that, really, is his speciality.”
Lakmal might not be a rockstar, but he has lately got rockstar returns. A 5 for 54 in Christchurch, to reduce New Zealand to a first-innings score of 178. A 5 for 75 in the very next Test, at the Gabba. Then in Bridgetown, in June last year, there was a 3 for 25 in the second innings, as he led the effort to bowl out West Indies for 93, setting up a series-levelling victory at a venue at which no Asian side had ever previously won.
In Port Elizabeth, where a certifiably insane second day has unfolded, Lakmal has led yet again with the ball, dismissing South Africa’s form-batsman Quinton de Kock to start, before beating more edges, smiling a lot, and wangling out the lower order with balls that jagged back in, on his way to figures of 4 for 39. There was not a ball that he delivered today that you would claim was unplayable. But there were plenty you could argue were barely playable. And that, really, is his speciality. That little bit of nibble – that is his house. He will move it just enough, beat your shot, and then eventually, following a display of all the very lamest virtues – patience, perseverance, consistency – he will get you out.
And then he will come to a press conference, and, in a barely audible voice, say things like this: “In this series, more than me the two young guys took wickets. They were superb. When they were taking wickets I had to keep things tight from other end. We are lacking three of our premier bowlers and Vishwa [Fernando] came along and did a great job. So did Kasun Rajitha. They didn’t look like newcomers. They even gave me some pointers.”
A fast bowler, in the ninth year of his career, happily stating that two whippersnappers, playing their fifth and sixth Tests, were actually giving him solid advice.
“Better Sri Lankan sides have come here and failed to bowl South Africa so cheaply,” Lakmal continued. “I bowled really well and I’m pleased. Today I was fortunate to get four wickets.”
Why should we be surprised that this guy is almost completely ego-free? The last time Sri Lanka played South Africa, Lakmal didn’t bowl at all in the first innings at the SSC, and only delivered two overs in the second dig. Most quicks would be shooting daggers at their captain if they were doing him such an indignity, right? Imagine Dale Steyn, or James Anderson, or Glenn McGrath being told that they were completely unrequired in a first innings, no matter where it was. They would be demanding a bowl, and seething if they could not get their way.
Except, in that series, the captain Lakmal would have had to harangue was actually himself. He kept himself out of the attack for almost an entire Test. He – the leader of the side – sat back, let the spinners go to work, and, as they were getting plenty of wickets, felt no strong temptation to bring himself on and get some cheap tail-end rewards.
Many have watched him, and failed to be inspired. Plenty have noted his bowling average – hovering around 40 – and arrived at easy conclusions. But watch him in tough situations, such as the one that faced Sri Lanka in Port Elizabeth today. See him give his team a chance, away tour after away tour.
There is no bluster. There is no aura. Only a wonderful player.