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Mali & Boom, a match made in bowling heaven

Malinga and Bumrah, united by their distinctive unorthodoxy BCCI

Mali and Boom look like they have emerged from different sporting planets. Mali is chunky, lumbering and slowing down at 35. Boom posts Twitter pictures of his six-pack and, at 25, is a rocket heading into cricket's stardom stratosphere. Mali has been there and done that, an adoring dad of two, who assiduously ensures that his curls are always gold-tinted. Boom, a bachelor of close crop, neat beard and zero visible tattoos, has said in public that he would rather go bald than do that.

But contrary to what the eye can see is what the game of cricket - and the IPL - has created over six years. On Thursday night at Bengaluru's Chinnaswamy, the uncommon friendship of Lasith Malinga and Jasprit Bumrah took centre stage and played its own part in helping Mumbai Indians win a nailbiter against Royal Challengers Bangalore. The last two overs were split between them and, with 22 to win, Boom ensured his friend had a good-sized 17 to defend.

As Malinga got ready to bowl, he had captain Rohit Sharma and Bumrah in his ear. Bumrah was talking to the man who had taught him the nuts and bolts of death bowling and set him, then a raw 18-year-old, on the road to becoming the world's best white-ball death bowler.

In researching the life and times of Bumrah, the mention of Malinga kept popping up. Whatever their differences in outward appearance and, ostensibly, personality, the two have been united by their distinctive unorthodoxy. Malinga was not around when Bumrah turned up at the Mumbai Indians nets in 2013 two days before his debut. The two met for the first time only later at nets and it was Malinga who reached out to the rookie.

"When I watched him bowl, I realised he was very keen to learn, but there might have been some nervousness in his heart, or a fear that he might not be able to do everything he needed to with the action he had" MALINGA ON BUMRAH

In an online interview to stand-up comic Vikram Sathaye, Bumrah says, "He (Malinga) himself came up and said 'I'll teach you stuff, don't worry, I'm there'."

Malinga was to tell my colleague Andrew Fidel Fernando, "I met him first in 2013. When I watched him bowl, I realised he was very keen to learn, but there might have been some nervousness in his heart, or a fear that he might not be able to do everything he needed to with the action he had… I wanted to talk to him like a friend and find out how he sees cricket."

Like Bumrah, Malinga is a man of few words, but when Fidel called him to chat about Bumrah, Malinga turned unstoppable conversationalist. They spoke for around 11 minutes, in which Fidel needed to ask only two questions, and turned out a 1134-word transcript of pure gold.

When Malinga saw Bumrah first, it was like listening to Champaka Ramanayake talking about himself in 1999. "(He said that) I didn't have a textbook action but I was also fast. I thought he (Bumrah) was a bowler with natural talent." It was like Malinga was seeing a younger, equally eager, hungry, slightly modified version of himself. Mali and Boom could be more alike than you imagine.

Malinga assured Bumrah that his action could work and to not worry about injury. He says his first goal was to make Bumrah his own coach. "Teach him how to teach himself… When you come across an unorthodox bowler like that, what you need to teach him is self-awareness and an understanding of his own game. You have to be your own coach."

Bumrah had got to where he had with that very self-awareness and confidence in his own skills. At the most elite fast-bowling school a teenager could hope to find himself in, he was more than eager to be taught by an old master. His love for the yorker as a wicket-taking option had come from days playing tennis-ball cricket, much like Malinga.

In a BCCI video, Bumrah says he was told by Malinga, "You have to be consistent with the yorkers. One or two yorkers anyone can deliver. Execution is important… you have the yorkers but use it properly." The smoothness of that execution meant drilling it into muscle memory and Malinga's practice had involved the familiar boots placed on the blockhole. "I said, 'Look, these are things I do with my bowling, these things have been successful for me, if you want, you can train with me.'"

Did Bumrah ever. He soaked up whatever Malinga had to offer. If it meant a yorkers-only nets, he was happy to do it. Until his body was used to the action and had understood the load the constant repetition required and what it would feel like and how it could be adapted to.

There were discussions about analysing one's own bowling and giving feedback when required by coaches. "I didn't try to teach him too much that was new. I just told him what I know and tried to light a fire in him for the things he already enjoyed doing."

One of Malinga's strengths as an end-overs specialist is to read batsmen, their mind, their form, their plans and then ensure you had the bowling skills to challenge them. "This is what he taught me," says Bumrah in the video, "you have to adjust according to each and every batsman, you have to use your yorkers properly, you have to be different with different batsmen, sometimes you have to bowl the wide yorkers, sometimes you have to swing the yorkers… This is what I have learnt."

Malinga was to tell Bumrah, "No matter how much we talk, if you don't have the skill you need at the particular moment, you can't do anything…" Whatever is to be used in the match, he said, has to be learnt in training to a degree of instinctive repetition, "Develop your bowling, your repertoire… then when you play, you will realise which situation demands which ball, when that situation comes, you will already have it in your arsenal. And you will know how to bowl that ball."

The fruits of that lesson in physical form are evident in the accuracy of Bumrah's death-overs execution and, on Thursday night, in his 19th-over chokehold against AB DeVilliers and Colin de Grandhomme. Malinga's instructions on how to handle pressure appear to have been drilled into Bumrah's soul. Malinga's methods are simple, "Don't panic if there's pressure. Take half a second. Take a deep breath. Think only about what you have to do."

In an October 2017 BCCI video, Bumrah is heard saying, "The main thing about death overs is to have clarity. Whichever ball you want to execute, have the field according to that… Go ahead and try to execute. Think simple and get the confidence to execute in the death."

Who knows what Bumrah was saying to Malinga at the Chinnaswamy on Thursday night? Maybe repeating the older player's words back to him. Maybe it was merely a gee-up kind of chatter. This wasn't a passing of the torch or anything of the sort - hell, there was a match on the line. Like there are always going to be over next six weeks in which Mali may have to walk over to chat to Boom. It's what they do.

Even after the IPL, the two men will remain in touch. Over the years, Bumrah has texted and called Malinga for tips and insight. Malinga is delighted at Bumrah's rise, "I'm really happy when I watch him play…. He's learned the game beautifully, he doesn't separate Test and one-day cricket, he uses his skills in all of them." It was his advice to Bumrah, "don't think about the format - only about how you are going to get that wicket."

Malinga's English messages on phone are famous among his Indian friends for being monosyllabic. After many days, all that could pop up is a cryptic, "how?" (It's the English translation of the Sinhala shorthand kohomada, how are you?) Bumrah is now well-versed in the texting code. "There is a language difference between us but we communicate, however, wherever…"

When trying to understand the friendship between these two unique players, between Mali of Rathgama and Boom of Ahmedabad, an equally short and sweet question and answer serves nicely.
"How?"
"Cricket - what else?"

(With inputs from Andrew Fidel Fernando)