Colombo: When Sri Lanka turned up for their first two World Cup matches without Lasith Malinga, it was a bit like watching The Good, The Bad and the Ugly without the gun-slinging heroics of Clint Eastwood.
Luckily for the 1996 champions, it only took six spectacular balls from `Slinga Malinga` -- so-dubbed because of his whippy, round-arm action -- to flatten Kenya on Tuesday and bury memories of their `bad` loss to Pakistan.
His barrage of toe-crushers not only left the Kenyans hopping around the wicket as they tried to avoid being maimed but also showed that Sri Lanka`s hopes of winning a second trophy in the sub-continent largely revolves around the him.
The 27-year-old`s return to top form would also have been noted by world champions Australia and New Zealand, who will both have to take on the co-hosts in Group A matches.
With retirement-bound spinner Muttiah Muralitharan no longer striking fear in opponents -- his figures after three matches reads a rather disappointing 4-94 despite the spin-friendly tracks -- the onus on getting vital breakthroughs and winning matches largely rests with Malinga.
Malinga was kept out of the side with a sore back in the matches against Canada and Pakistan but when he returned to the World Cup stage on Tuesday, it was the Kenyans who were left feeling battered and bruised as the Sri Lankan topped off a spectacular haul of six for 38 with a hat-trick.
"A lot of people have said that I would not be able to play for a long time (due to injury concerns) but I am happy to have played for the last seven years," Malinga, the first bowler to snare two World Cup hat-tricks, said after his team`s nine-wicket win over Kenya.
"I don`t know how long I can play but I am happy to contribute to the team whenever I play."
"I will give my 100 percent in whatever game I participate," added Malinga, who captured four South African wickets with four balls in the 2007 World Cup.
Hence for the next four weeks, more than 20 million Sri Lankans will be scrutinising Malinga`s health bulletin on a daily basis, praying that the injury-prone speedster does not suffer another setback during the course of the tournament.
The team management has already said keeping their main strike bowler injury-free is their top priority, which was the reason why he was rested for the Pakistan match even though he had regained full fitness.
Against Pakistan, Sri Lanka`s bowling attack was led by Nuwan Kulasekara and Thisara Perera and throughout the 50 overs they struggled to achieve breakthroughs and lost the contest by 11 runs.
While Pakistan coach Waqar Younis refused to speculate if Malinga`s presence would have impacted the final result, there was no hiding the fact that he was relieved his men did not have to face the rampant paceman.
"I don`t think Malinga`s presence would have made a huge difference but he is definitely one of the best bowlers in the tournament," Waqar, a former fast bowler with a deadly yorker like Malinga, said.
"As long as he does not do it against us I am happy."
"Kenya may not be one of the top sides but what we saw yesterday of Malinga reminded me of my good old days."