Baby Malinga takes flight

Baby Malinga takes flight
Picture Credits - AFP

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True stats by Varun Alvakonda via Cricsheet.

This boy is watching his bat burning. His mother, in a fit of rage to get her son to take his studies more seriously so he becomes a pilot, has decided to take this drastic measure to ensure he focuses on his education. The issue is that it doesn’t stop him, at all.

Pathirana picks up a stick and starts swinging that around and hitting stones off the upper floor of his house. He hits one so well, it breaks a window. His mother’s act of maternal arson has actually ended up ruining a neighbour's house. 

His father decided to get him another bat, to save the windows. This all happened to a player who was barely a teenager. The bats still get burned today, but it is when that boy, Matheesha Pathirana, bowls. 

Matheesha Pathirana had a breakout season with Chennai Super Kings with 19 wickets in 13 matches in IPL 2023 (Image Courtesy - BCCI)

The problem with Pathirana is the ball should be coming from just above the heads of the bowler and umpire, somewhere in between. But it’s delivered from somewhere near the sternum of the umpire. You can use all the ball machines you want, or get throwdown coaches to try side arm from this spot, but you cannot replicate the years of practice of where players have been looking their entire life. And we know this is hard, not because of Pathirana, but because of how Lasith Malinga dominated during his career. 

Malinga was part of the Mumbai Indians’ title-winning squads across several IPLs: in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019. He was the OG king of the T20 yorker.  Malinga had success against many teams, but he seemed to savour playing the Chennai Super Kings in particular, picking up 37 wickets against them. That was the joint-most for any player against a single opponent in T20 cricket at the time of his retirement.

Kieron Pollard lifts Lasith Malinga on his shoulders after victory (Image Courtesy - BCCI)

The curly hair with frosted tips, slingy action and disarming grin were probably the stuff of nightmares for the men in yellow. There’s no doubt they would have loved to have bagged Malinga at some point over their long rivalry with the Mumbai Indians. They did the next best thing. 

Pathirana’s first call up to the IPL was as a net-bowler in 2021. Though tempted to take up the offer, he ended up turning it down because of his commitments to his school team. It caught a few people by surprise when he was called up as a replacement for Adam Milne the next season. Pathirana hadn’t played for Sri Lanka yet, he hadn’t even gotten into a squad. While his action caught everyone’s attention, there were (and still are in some quarters) real doubts about his control – but here he was being called up to as storied a franchise as CSK. 

Born in 2002, Pathirana is of the generation for whom the IPL was just a natural part of the cricket ecosystem, so getting that call to join a squad as a raw 19-year-old was already a huge deal. Pathirana spent most of the season on the bench, but he finally got his chance in the latter part of a poor season for CSK. With Malinga’s No. 99 on his back, he delivered in slinging  fashion with his first delivery – full, straight, plumb. The magic start. 

In the 2023 season, he went from being seen as just a replica of an IPL legend, to a player with the potential to carry CSK’s death bowling for years to come. It was quite a responsibility to lay on a 20-year-old. But boy, has he carried it well. 

An integral part of CSK’s title run in the 2023 season, Pathirana ended the tournament as their most economical quick, despite bowling the toughest overs – often three at a stretch at the death. He had 18 wickets at just over eight runs an over at the back end of the innings, a number you’d be happy to take from a veteran, hell, anyone, let alone a guy in just his second season. And, don’t forget, by the time the season started, he’d only bowled one over in international cricket.

This is the impact he had in his second season. He took 19 wickets in 2023 with a true economy of 1.34 and a true wickets per 4 overs of -0.05. He was a fantastic defensive bowler whilst essentially being a par wicket taker. However, it’s his death overs bowling that was truly unbelievable in 2023. 18 of his 19 wickets came in overs 17-20 at a true economy of 2.93 and a true wickets per 4 overs of 1.  

Matheesha Pathirana's true values in IPL 2023

After missing CSK’s first match of the 2024 season due to injury, he had a quiet start to the IPL in what was a big win for CSK over Gujarat. He turned up against Delhi Capitals and grabbed a stunning diving catch at short third, putting to bed any injury concerns, temporarily (he would miss the next two games with a niggle).

When it was his turn to bowl, a precise yorker flattened Mitchell Marsh’s middle-stump in the 15th over and then Tristan Stubbs suffered an almost identical fate. This time it was the off-stump that lay splayed on the floor. No stumps seem to jump out of the ground like Indian ones, Pathirana splatters them.

His comeback from injury was against CSK’s arch rivals Mumbai and he gave them a taste of their own slinger medicine, finishing with figures of 4/28 in a game where nearly 400 runs were scored. He also bowled 12 dots on a day that he delivered the 18th and 20th overs.

That performance almost perfectly illustrated his impact for the Super Kings. He’s taken wickets regularly, but he’s also been economical. In IPL 2024, he is only fractionally behind Andre Russell in terms of strike rate - Russell takes a wicket every 10.13 balls, while Pathirana does it every 10.15 balls. Only Jasprit Bumrah and Sunil Narine have taken more wickets than him at a better economy -  his is 7.68 and 40.9% of his deliveries have been dots. 

Again, remember most of his overs come at the death. For a min of 50 balls at the death this season, Pathirana has an economy rate of 8.56, that’s only second to Bumrah's 6.07.

This is the true 0s to 6s for Pathirana. A value of 1 means you are par for that specific number. The higher the value the better the bowler is for that specific scoring shot.One thing that should be screaming at your face is that you can’t hit Pathirana for a six. He’s 141% better at not conceding sixes than what is expected of him. 

Matheesha Pathirana - True 0s to 6s in the IPL since the start of 2023 (As of 18th May, 2024)

We thought it was best to compare him to others to see how that translated. I have seen many outliers before, but this is certainly someone who appears to be on the wrong graph. The fact that you can hit him to the rope normally, but never over it is wild. 

True 4s vs True 6s in the IPL, min 400 balls since the start of 2023 (As of 18th May, 2024)

Out of all the bowlers who have bowled at least 100 balls this season, he has the 4th best true economy rate of 2.3. Only Bumrah(3.55), Sandeep Sharma (2.44) and Narine (2.35) have better true economies. He also has the 2nd best true wickets value of 0.97, only behind Russell’s 1.13, meaning that over the 4 over period he takes 0.97 wickets more than expected.

True values for IPL 2024, min 100 balls (As of 15th May, 2024)

A. Wicket. Per. Spell. Better than the rest of the league. 

But he is raw, and that is part of his danger. This is a fantastic graph that shows that he is the most likely bowler to take your wicket, and bowl wides. You are probably only going to be dismissed by him, or not be able to reach the ball. 

True wickets per four overs versus wides per ball in the IPL, min 400 balls since the start of 2023 (As of 4th May, 2024)

But the incredible thing is he bowls more wides than anyone, and still goes for no runs. The most economical and the most likely to bowl five wides. That is some package. 

True economy rate versus wides per ball in the IPL, min 400 balls since the start of 2023 (As of 4th May, 2024)

In a game that is tilting more and more towards batters, Pathirana has faced every challenge on the pitch successfully, except the ones his action brings. The biggest hurdle he faces now is actually keeping himself on the park. With the T20 World Cup a couple of weeks away, he’s returned to Sri Lanka with a hamstring niggle. What could have been an all-time IPL season cut short at just six games.

They call him baby-Malinga, but the original slinger was more deadly, he partnered an incredible delivery style with next-level thinking. Even as he slowed down he was just as incredible. Pathirana is nowhere near that level yet. He’s like a child with an atom bomb rocket launcher attached to his arm. 

He has the slower ball, the yorker and the bouncer. His arm is at an even lower angle than Malinga and he could just be the fastest bowler ever produced by Sri Lanka. But there is still a long way to go and a lot to learn along the way.  

But back when his mother was worried about him not being a pilot, or studying hard, the truth was he was always hitting the books, almost as hard as he was his neighbour’s windows. So if he continues to study bowling then there is no limit to where he ends. He may not be a pilot, but he’s already flying.