The unflinching rise and rise of Matheesha Pathirana


At what point during your carpet ride into the clouds do you stop to pinch yourself?

Or does stopping to take a breath slow the ascent? Maybe when you’re 20, and you are on the manic adventure that Matheesha Pathirana is on, reflecting on how far you’ve come is not even a thought that occurs.

Still, the last few years must have seemed a blur, right? They have to have. Scouted first from Ranabima Royal College, a rural school about six kilometres east of Kandy, Pathirana moved to Trinity College in the city, in his mid-teens. Boasting alumni such as Kumar Sangakkara, there is no greater producer of top cricketers in the province than Trinity.

The next few years are even more outrageous. A whirl of spectacular pace, yorkers clattering into wickets, and batters’ backs arching backwards to get out of the way of steepling bounce coming from that round-arm action. There are two trips to Under-19 World Cups, searing overs in the Abu Dhabi T10 league, Thilina Kandamby marking you out as a star, Darren Bravo taking notice. And ok, wow, the break to cap a breathless run of breaks – MS Dhoni, basically a demi-god as far as you’re concerned, learning you exist, believing you can change matches at the elite level, his franchise team flying you out into the most glittering annual showcase in your sport.

Already this is pure fantasy. Sri Lanka greats have been overlooked at the IPL. In one year, the only Lankans at the tournament were coaching staff. A teenager from Kandy getting a gig at one of the great franchises? Get out of here.

Late in the 2022 season, Adam Milne gets injured, and Pathirana replaces him in the Chennai Super Kings squad, making an impression in the few games he gets. The year 2023 is a fever dream. Pathirana walking back to his mark to bowl another death over. The Chepauk stands heaving. Thousands are screaming for him. Around his shoulder the arm of one of the great white-ball strategists, telling him where to bowl, how fast, how to outwit the batter.

Even the IPL organisers unwittingly helped power his rise by introducing the Impact Player rule. At present, Pathirana’s action is so low, it is lower even than that of Lasith Malinga – the Godfather of round-arm bowlers, and the man he has modelled his action on. This means he doesn’t get the outswing Malinga often managed with the new ball.

What Pathirana does have are the unhittable yorkers, bouncers that chase batters like a mugger through an alleyway, and the slower ball that Malinga himself helped teach him. This all makes him a terrific death bowler, so he can deliver four over-spells at the back of an innings. The Impact Player rule means someone else mostly bowls with the new ball.

Pathirana’s ride doesn’t stop.

It didn’t stop on Thursday, when he played his first international match at Pallekele, near enough to Kandy. A rapid bouncer got him his first wicket, in his first over. Shakib Al Hasan was so late on a dab he could only glove it to the wicketkeeper. With another quick bouncer, he dismissed the other experienced batter in Bangladesh’s middle order – Mushfiqur Rahim not quite managing to catch up with a head-high ball outside off, sending it only into the hands of third man.

In between the wicket-balls: his most controlled ODI spell, so far in his short career. Before this match, Pathirana’s economy rate in ODIs was 6.48. Here, he strung together tight overs of mostly length balls. On tracks better suited to batting, and against an opposition who had lost more wickets, perhaps he would have been put under more pressure.

But then if Dushmantha Chameera and Dilshan Madushanka had been fit, Pathirana likely would not have made the playing XI at all. And if Chameera and Lahiru Kumara had not become injured in Zimbabwe, Pathirana may not have played in the World Cup Qualifier either.

If this is all part of Pathirana’s carpet ride, he is making the most of it.

“I think this performance has been coming for a while now,” Sri Lanka coach Chris Silverwood said of Pathirana. “He’s had a great experience at the IPL and then he came to the World Cup Qualifier with us, and we did a lot of work on how to bowl with the new ball. It wasn’t to do with his action so much. It was more to do with his run-up. We just gave him more access to the stumps and we found he got more control through that.

“He absorbs information very quickly, and he’s very quickly able to apply that to his game. He does it his way. It won’t be long till he’s got the new ball in his hand.”

In this match, his first over had been the eleventh of the innings.

Towards the end, against the tail, Pathirana was predictably good. Taskin Ahmed, understandably uncomfortable against Pathirana’s pace, prodded him aerially to cover. Mustafizur Rahman was undone by an expertly delivered offcutter that would have hissed into middle stump. And five ODIs in, Pathirana had his first four-wicket haul. The average dived to 24.12. Having conceded only 32 from his 7.4 overs, the economy rate dipped below six for the first time.

How long the ride goes is difficult to tell. Round-arm fast bowlers don’t seem the type to play out predictable careers. But so far, Pathirana is clinging to whatever it is that powers his ascent, undaunted by how high he has flown in so short a time.

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